The frustrating quest to keep death off the roads
This week brought news of three pedestrian or cyclist fatalities on the streets of Toronto — a spate that has former chief city planner Jennifer Keesmaat calling for a “state of emergency.” “It’s too much to take. It’s unbearable,” she tweeted, calling for an immediate lowering of speed limits as a first “basic” step.
Keesmaat noted that the annual pedestrian death toll — 30, on average, since 2007 — is comparable to the 2003 SARS outbreak happening every single year. An average of 183 other pedestrians have been seriously injured each year, along with 50 cyclists. And 29 cyclists have perished over that decade, according to police statistics.
But if we should now be in a state of emergency, we should have been in one for a long time. We are not on pace for a record year — more like an average one. The number of cyclist deaths is stable — between one and four every year — and serious non-fatal injuries are about as common as they were a decade ago, despite many more people cycling. The rate of pedestrians killed is on the rise, but the number seriously injured is on a definite downward trend.
So it’s not all terrible news, relatively speaking. But other reasonably comparable North American cities do far better — notably Seattle, where the pedestrian fatality rate is roughly half Toronto’s. And most activities have gotten far safer over the years. Driving certainly has. It seems like a distinct failure of social progress that crossing the street hasn’t.
The issue reduces many Torontonians to righteous apoplexy. Implore pedestrians and cyclists to be more careful out there, as TSN basketball analyst Leo Rautins did on Twitter this week, and you will be deluged with allegations of victim blaming, callousness and general idiocy.
Politicians who propose laws targeting distracted pedestrians, licensing cyclists and other inanities deserve to be hooted at. But yelling at concerned private citizens giving advice that every single parent gives her kids is about as useful as … well, licensing cyclists, for example.
Focusing on cyclist and pedestrian behaviour isn’t the wrong approach because there’s no problem there. The majority of the 543 cyclist fatalities and serious injuries since 2007 were “driving properly,” according to police records, but many of the rest had run lights or stop signs or otherwise put themselves in danger. Roughly half of pedestrians killed were doing something they technically shouldn’t have been.
It just seems rather unlikely that any entreaty from the mayor or chief of police or sports personality is going to knock sense into people who didn’t get it from their god or their parents. Besides which, if you’re rocking around town surrounded by two tons of metal, not running into people is a key part of the job no matter how reckless they might be.
The solutions to this are well known and have been proven to work. They include redesigning intersections and giving pedestrians a head start in crossing them, to make them more visible to motorists, and reducing speed limits, as Keesmaat suggested. These measures, known collectively as Vision Zero, helped New York City ratchet down pedestrian deaths dramatically — from 184 in 2013 to just 101 in 2017.
In Toronto, many of these ideas are politically controversial. Some require provincial agreement: photo radar; road pricing, which is the only real way to reduce congestion; vastly tougher licence suspensions for drivers who wreak mayhem; and I still harbour this fantasy where we actually test for basic competencies before handing out licences in the first place. Many Torontonians have about as much business driving an automobile as I have captaining the Queen Mary II.
A Doug Ford-led Tory government seems unlikely to be a huge help on this front — though you never know. Alas, lenient penalties for drunk and dangerous drivers is an all-party consensus, as is a total aversion to road tolls.
On the bridge side, enforcement is another key part of Vision Zero — and we have barely tried enforcing the rules we have. It’s a miracle the King Street transit project is improving ride times and reliability as much as it is, for all the drivers who drift through the illuminated do not enter signs, horns and bells ringing in their ears, gawping in bafflement like newborn calves. At rush hour, the same dozy bovines turn downtown intersections into de facto wrecking yards, through which pedestrians must gingerly pick their way. Every rush hour is a recipe for pedestrian and cyclist disaster.
So by all means fight for the other solutions. But for now, put a red light camera at every intersection. Hire more cops, if that’s really necessary — and if they promise to focus on traffic. Toronto has committed to a quixotic, plainly unachievable goal of reducing traffic deaths to zero. So far, there’s no evidence our efforts have reduced them at all. Mayor John Tory’s and concerned city councillors’ options may be limited, but they have more than enough at their disposal to be judged harshly if they don’t put them to use.