The frus­trat­ing quest to keep death off the roads

National Post (Latest Edition) - - CANADA - Chris sel­ley

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.

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