Anne Harris/UBC/Ryerson

The rails are to blame for one-third of incidents requiring emergency-room care.

Although it’s probably not news to a legion of sprained and scarred commuters, researchers are reporting that streetcar tracks are to blame for a large percentage of bicycle accidents.

At least that’s the case in Toronto, where 32 percent of bike wrecks (or 87) from May 2008 to November 2009 were the direct result of riders hitting such tracks, say public-health experts at the University of British Columbia, Ryerson University, and elsewhere. Meanwhile, about half of the 276 accidents recorded during this time happened in areas with streetcar tracks.

“In these crashes,” the researchers say in a press release, “cyclists often had to maneuver quickly to avoid collisions with vehicles, pedestrians, or other cyclists and their wheels got caught in the gap alongside the rails (called the flangeway) or slipped on the rail itself.” All these wrecks were serious enough to require emergency-room visits.

Making a left turn at intersections with tracks proved to be a risk factor for unexpectedly eating face, as was riding on a street with tracks and parked cars. Female riders and novice cyclists were more prone to wrecking on tracks, as was anybody using thin tires (such as those on a racing or hybrid cycle).

Examples of Toronto roadways with streetcar tracks lacking protected bike paths. (BMC Public Health)

The track mayhem in Toronto is likely tied to the city’s massive streetcar system, said to be the largest in North America. In an earlier study in Vancouver, the researchers found only 2.5 percent of crashes were related to streetcar tracks. However, for any city seeking to improve its traffic safety, the researchers suggest pushing public education on crossing tracks (do so at a 45-degree-or-higher angle, use wider tires) or, even better, physically making streets more bike-friendly.

Here’s the conclusion from their study in BMC Public Health:

Certain demographics were more likely to have track-involved crashes, suggesting that increased knowledge about how to avoid them might be helpful. However, such advice is long-standing and common in Toronto, yet the injury toll is very high, underscoring the need for other solutions. Tires wider than streetcar or train flangeways (~50 mm in the Toronto system) are another individual-based approach, but population-based measures are likely to provide the optimal solution. Our results showed that route infrastructure makes a difference to the odds of track-involved injuries. Dedicated rail rights of way, cycle tracks, and protected intersections that direct two-stage left turns are policy measures concordant with a Vision Zero standard. They would prevent most of the track-involved injury scenarios observed in this study.

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