Slow down and stop the killing

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Michel GrignonCanadians are killing each other on our streets, even in broad daylight. The killers are usually known but rarely prosecuted. Moreover, the killing could easily be prevented.

Who are these people?

The victims are people walking and the culprits are people driving. Ordinary, everyday people.

More than 300 pedestrians are killed by motorists in Canada each year. In Toronto alone, 163 pedestrians have been killed since 2011.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Most collisions between pedestrians and vehicles are, one could argue, by design – policy design, that is.

First, let’s look at who’s at fault in most pedestrian-vehicle collisions. According to the chief coroner of Ontario, 35 per cent of pedestrian deaths were clearly caused by motorist traffic violations (e.g., failure to yield, jumping the curb); 33 per cent of pedestrian deaths could not be determined; and, in 32 per cent of cases, there might have been a combination of pedestrians disregarding traffic rules (e.g., crossing against the light) and drivers not paying enough attention.

The bottom line is most pedestrian deaths are preventable.

And evidence shows that the pedestrians struck by vehicles are not just young daredevils or children darting into the road – common misconceptions. Rather, 35 per cent of pedestrians struck were seniors, even though they represent only 13 per cent of the population. Only three per cent of fatalities involved children.

Most pedestrian victims were just trying to cross the road at an intersection.

Second, consider the increasing size of vehicles in pedestrian fatalities. Vehicles are getting heavier and taller. The market share of light trucks has increased dramatically since 1980. According to Neil Arason, author of No Accident, light trucks increase the likelihood of pedestrian and cyclist fatalities in collisions by at least 50 per cent compared to regular cars.

In other words, our outdated rules meant to protect all those using the road have not caught up to the deadly reality of our new plus-sized vehicles.

One simple solution is to lower speed limits, which we know drastically reduces the risk of pedestrian fatalities in collisions. Research shows significant reductions in pedestrian death by reducing and enforcing speed limits to 30 km/h in city centres, urban residential areas and rural neighbourhoods with high levels of pedestrian activity.

At 30 km/h, the probability of a collision or fatal collision are both very small. Increase the speed and the risk for both collisions and resultant deaths increases dramatically.

Recent data (2009-2013) from Toronto shows how pedestrian deaths go up with the speed limit:

  • where the speed limit was 30 km/h, no pedestrian was killed;
  • where the speed limit was 40 km/h, 12 pedestrians were killed;
  • where the speed limit was 50 km/h, 44 pedestrians were killed;
  • where the speed limit was 60 km/h, 77 pedestrians were killed.

If we reduce speed limits from 50 to 30 km/h, we could reduce pedestrian deaths to one-seventh of what they are today. Real-life experiments conducted in Europe also show that imposing low speed limits decreases the number of pedestrian injuries and fatalities.

One frequent objection to lowering speed limits is that it may add to commuting times. But congestion and stand-still traffic contribute much more to commute times than speed limits. For example, the average speed of a commuting driver in the greater Toronto area is only 18.6 km/h because of congestion and traffic jams. Traffic simulations suggest that a speed limit of 30 km/h would increase commuting time by only five per cent.

Of course, reducing speed limits might not be enough if urban planning as a whole is not designed to put pedestrians first. Arason and others working on safe street design suggest strategies such as narrowing streets by building or enlarging sidewalks and traffic islands, which in turn discourages larger cars; and banning the right-turn on red light, which deters motorists from driving through crosswalks while pedestrians are crossing the street.

Urban planning that puts pedestrians first will also encourage walking. As more people walk, more motorists would get used to driving with pedestrians in mind.

Our neighbourhood streets should be viewed as zones used by pedestrians, where the intrusion of dangerous machines can be tolerated but should not be the rule. It’s time we crafted pedestrian-centred planning in our neighbourhoods.

We can stop the killing on Canadian streets.

Michel Grignon is an associate professor with the Departments of Economics and Health, Aging and Society at McMaster University.

Michel is a Troy Media Thought Leader. Why aren’t you?

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traffic rules pedestrian deaths road design

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

By Michel Grignon

Michel Grignon is a Health Economist and Associate Professor in the Department of Health, Aging and Society. He looks to assess and improve Canada’s healthcare system with regard to Canada’s aging population, which increasingly relies on public services. Michel’s work intends to bridge the divide between efficiency and equity by allocating health resources more effectively. He has found that Canada’s healthcare is constructed to serve acute conditions. Older people, though, are more likely to have permanent chronic conditions. He believes that a healthcare system looks very different when a large percentage of the population it serves will never return to full health. Michel also serves as a public commentator on issues of aging and health equity, and is helping Canadian policymakers improve how they serve our aging population.

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