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Turning Tragedy into Law; Creating Cycling Advocacy

An interview with Eleanor McMahon by Jim Plaunt of Bike Tour Vacations

Eleanor McMahon was a keynote speaker at a bike conference I attended recently. Her story was engaging and it hit home as she grew up close to us in Canada.

Eleanor grew up in Windsor, Ontario, a rust-belt city just across the river from Detroit in the heart of the Great Lakes. She’s the youngest of 7 in an Irish-Catholic family. She had a driver’s license but rarely had the opportunity to use the family car, a Chrysler which rolled off the assembly line where her father worked.

“When I was in high school”, she said, “I had a bicycle. Having a bicycle was freedom. It allowed me to explore parts of the city that I hadn’t before. The bike was freedom, and I’ve ridden bikes all my life.” Cycling continued to be a part of her life as she grew up.

She paid for University and a semester abroad by working summers at Chrysler. After graduation, she spent 8 years learning about government as a staff member of Parliament in Ottawa, including a stint as Press Secretary to Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien. Eleanor then left government for a successful career in business and management.

Tragedy

Eleanor met and married a fellow cyclist and triathlete, Ontario Provincial Policeman Greg Stobbart, at age 39. As a law enforcement professional and active cyclist and triathlete, you would think he would be safe on a bike. However, life is fragile and while training for a triathlon he was struck and run over by a driver who had a suspended license. The driver pulled out to pass while going uphill in a commercial vehicle. This was unsafe to begin with, and when he had to swerve back to avoid oncoming traffic, Greg was killed in the crash.

Eleanor spoke the initials of this motorist but never mentioned his name. We did not discuss the reason for his suspended license. But two months after killing Greg, this driver caused another accident.

The motorist was convicted in his first trial but he appealed. The second trial was going to send the driver to jail. “He knew he was going to be convicted” said Eleanor, “so he made a deal with the crown and his sentence was reduced.” Just one hundred hours of community service and another temporary suspended license.

We seem to hear these stories way too often. A motorist hurts or kills a cyclist but doesn’t seem to be punished for it.

We road users – motorists, bicyclists, pedestrians – depend on the motor vehicle codes to keep us safe while using public roads. Yet there are instances where the laws don’t help.

Eleanor had heard stories from her husband and from other Ontario Provincial Police officers, “Oh my gosh, I pulled ‘that guy’ over again.” She continued, “Previous to Greg’s death there was no encompassing charge for repeat offenders, people who repeatedly drove under suspension.”

Instead of Anger, Positive Change

Eleanor and her family were devastated by this tragedy. But, instead of staying angry, she and her brother decided to turn this tragedy into something positive-a new law to help police keep the roads safe. With her background in government, she knew a broad base of support was necessary. It was never an option to do this just because she had special privileges from working in government. “I wanted to make the case and get it done because it was the right thing to do” she said.

Working with the Chief of Ontario Provincial Police, they presented the business case for a change in the law. This law would help the OPP keep dangerous drivers off the roads, and was enforced with jail time and penalties. After some very hard work, Greg’s Law passed in 2009. Finally the police had a valuable tool to help protect us.

Unexpected Benefits: A Change the Culture

Fifteen years ago there was no advocacy group for bicycling in Ontario. Eleanor saw a need for this after Greg’s death, so she wrote a business plan to help learn if such a group would succeed. This group would need a broad base of support, and would have to be attractive to regular cyclists.

Eleanor is also convinced that road safety is not political. “Never! Never should (safety) be political. There was a perception that cyclists represented a certain cohort of the population, and that is wedge politics. I called that out immediately.”

In order to fight the perception, she built a case based on facts. Facts of who actually rides, how often, how many miles. Their polling showed a broad spectrum of citizens regularly on bicycles for commuting and for every day errands, and they’re out year-around!

Share the Road Cycling Coalition was launched as an advocacy organization representing all cyclists in Ontario, and continues to this day. Eleanor was the director for a while, but she knew enough to step back from the reins and move on.

Member of Parliament

From university to Press Secretary to the Prime Minister, to a career in business, then a marriage cut short by tragedy, and then advocacy. First for Greg’s Law, then Share the Road. How do you follow up on that? Run for Parliament.

Eleanor was elected to a single 4-year term to the Ontario Provincial Parliament in 2013. During that time she served on the cabinet as Minister of Tourism Culture & Sport. She worked hard to advance cycling. You can read more here  and here.

Forgiveness

No one plans for a tragedy. In order to cope with the unspeakable, Eleanor was able to forgive the driver who caused it. “I was able to forgive this man because I had to” she said, “because I didn’t want him to occupy my every thought. I didn’t want to be a vengeful person, that’s not who I am. My saving grace was the ability to pour my energy into making a difference in people’s lives.”

Our Responsibility

Click here for a full transcript of our recorded interview: Interview with Eleanor McMahon

About Bike Tour Vacations

At Bike Tour Vacations, we take safety and advocacy seriously. The League of Michigan Bicyclists is our local champion, and we participate in many of their events each year. In addition, our tours are designed in consultation with county and state highway departments, to help ensure your safety while on tour. Many of our tours are even led on car free paths. Please check out our safe and fun tours at www.biketourvacations.com. Thanks!

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