‘Toronto is in the midst of a quiet epidemic of violence against pedestrians, and it’s time for political leaders to take it much more seriously.’
Barbara Gray, the City of Toronto's incoming director of transportation. (STEVE RUSSELL / TORONTO STAR)
Sun., Dec. 11, 2016
Toronto is in the midst of a quiet epidemic of violence against pedestrians, and it’s time for political leaders to take it much more seriously.
On a single day last week, 15 pedestrians were hit by vehicles. One woman was killed.
Police are sounding the alarm that Toronto is on its way to having the worst year for pedestrian deaths since 2002. By Dec. 1, 42 people had been killed, and the toll continues to mount. And deaths are just the most shocking part of the harm; many non-fatal injuries can be life-changing.
It’s high time we changed the lens through which we view this damage. It’s time to stop brushing them off as mere “accidents” that must be accepted as the inevitable price of moving around in a big city. It’s time we saw them instead as a preventable kind of violence, and adopted policies aimed at eliminating them.
That will take both public education and determined political leadership, and so far both are falling short.
Public education tends to involve lecturing pedestrians. We’re told to wear bright-coloured clothing and keep alert to avoid being struck on our own streets. Good practical advice as far as it goes, but ultimately it shouldn’t be up to pedestrians to dodge cars.
Political leadership, too, must be stronger. Mayor John Tory and Toronto councillors deserve considerable credit for bringing in the city’s first-ever road safety program last summer and embracing the goal of “Vision Zero” – reducing road deaths and injuries to zero within five years. The plan earmarks $80 million over five years for a so-called targeted approach that involves such measures as reducing the speed limit from 50 km/h to 40 km/h on about 20 streets deemed as being “high-risk.”
That isn’t good enough. An analysis by Ben Spurr and William Davis of the Star found that just six of the 42 pedestrians killed between Jan. 1 and Dec. 1 of this year were struck on streets where the speed limit will be reduced as part of the city’s safety plan. Six more were in areas scheduled for “safety audits.” But the great majority happened in other parts of the city.
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It’s clear that a more determined approach is needed. During a meeting with the Star’s editorial board last week, Mayor Tory made clear he recognizes that the problem is pressing. He acknowledged the current high number of road deaths is “profoundly unacceptable.” And he said “it shouldn’t take anybody to get killed” to get action from the city.
For one thing, the city should take another look at lowering speed limits generally, not just in local areas where community councils can take action. Last year, for example, the community council in the old East York area reduced the limit on all roads in its jurisdiction to 30 km/h. But that kind of action depends on public pressure in particular neighbourhoods, and safety should be a right for everyone, not just those where activists can get results.
There’s no doubt lower speed limits save lives, but reducing speed on the roads won’t be universally popular. When the city’s chief medical officer made that recommendation in 2012, then-mayor Rob Ford attacked him personally, calling the idea “nuts, nuts, nuts.” Hopefully the current epidemic of road deaths has changed the political climate.
A comprehensive and ambitious road plan will involve more than looking at speed limits.
It would include addressing tough issues like road design, which has traditionally focused on moving vehicles as quickly as possible rather than ensuring the safety of all users.
It would include changing street signage and ramping up enforcement of traffic rules, such as the prohibitions on impaired and distracted driving (i.e. driving while texting or talking on a phone).
And it would include changes in areas outside the city’s jurisdiction, such as penalties for drivers who injure or kill pedestrians.
That was thrown into sharp relief this week when the woman convicted of careless driving in the death of a 42-year-old mother of three, Erica Stark, was given a $1,000 fine, six months probation and a driving ban of just one month. At the moment, drivers involved in such incidents don’t have to appear in court, provide any explanation of what happened, or even provide cellphone records. More can be done.
Toronto has an opportunity for a fresh start with the arrival of a new transportation director, Barbara Gray. She comes with a reputation as someone who believes all road users – including pedestrians – should be taken into consideration and supports reducing speed limits. City council should give her a strong mandate to make our streets safe for all.
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