If we are serious about eliminating pedestrian deaths and injuries, we need to re-engineer our urban streets to make it difficult or physically impossible to drive at high speeds.
By Nicholas Kevlahan
Published January 27, 2010
This article has been updated.
The recent spike in pedestrian deaths in the Greater Toronto Area (14 in January so far) has generated a flurry of editorials and articles in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star and CBC online.
These discussions and reports all describe the problem in the same terms: many complicated factors are involved and pedestrians and motorists are "equally to blame."
In addition to giving the same analysis, these articles suggest the same solution: more effective enforcement of traffic regulations (especially speeding) and a crackdown on "jaywalking".
The suggestion that drivers and pedestrians are equally to blame is troubling.
According to the Highway Traffic Act, motorists are supposed to be in full control of their vehicles at all times. Questions of safety trump questions right of way, and in a collision between a car and a pedestrian the pedestrian will always come off worse.
Because they have a much higher potential to cause harm, drivers have a much higher duty to exercise caution and due attention.
A pedestrian never "deserves" to be killed, even if they cross in the middle of a block or don't watch out for turning vehicles. Everyone should drive as if an eight year old could dart out at any moment chasing a ball (I remember this example from my own driving lessons!).
A recent Globe and Mail article illustrates this disconnect between who is "at fault" and how to actually improve safety on the roads.
The articles describes the situation as follows:
Some pedestrians need a healthier respect for the road and to be aware of the dangers of walking and talking on a cellphone. And drivers – those who speed, are impaired, talk on cellphones and fail to obey signs – need to face law enforcement. Records show motorists are at fault roughly half of the time when there is a pedestrian fatality.
In brief, if everyone just obeyed the rules, no one (i.e. the pedestrians) would get hurt.
It would have been helpful to give a reference for the "records" and a definition of what "at fault" means and how it relates to safety. However, several paragraphs later, the article does give an example of policies that actually work:
Sweden in particular has low injury rates, in part due to beefed-up driver education and stringent enforcement, which includes pulling over motorists. Drivers must also have their sight checked every decade with the renewal of their driver's license.
(The article doesn't mention the numerous ways Swedish roads are designed to be safe). Note that Sweden doesn't have policies to crackdown on jaywalking or pedestrian behaviour. In fact, the concept of jaywalking is actually unknown outside North America! It is interesting to note that, according to Wikipedia:
[Jaywalking's] dissemination was due in part to a deliberate effort by promoters of automobiles, such as local auto clubs and dealers, to redefine streets as places where pedestrians do not belong.
There's only one problem with this law-and-order approach: it doesn't work. Enforcement might lower the death rate a bit in the short term, but a system that relies on everyone obeying the rules all the time just to avoid killing people is not robust.
I'm particularly disappointed that this rules-based approach is being pushed when it is explicitly avoided in workplace safety and safety engineering.
I received workplace safety training last year, and one point kept being hammered home: Inattention, daydreaming or distraction are not acceptable explanations for an accident. The workplace must be safe when used by real people, not robots who always obey rules and are never distracted.
To take another example, rail companies don't just tell their drivers to "stay alert," they fit their trains with a "dead man's switch" which the driver must keep continuously pressed down, otherwise the train stops.
As mentioned previously in RTH, the only effective solution is to engineer our streets to be safe for real people in real situations. Real people may be distracted, rushed, five years old, eighty years old or disabled. And the main risk factor is vehicle speed.
If we are serious about eliminating pedestrian deaths and injuries, the maximum speed must kept below 30km/h. Therefore, we need to re-engineer our urban streets to make it difficult or physically impossible to drive at higher speeds.
Simply asking people to drive more slowly, or pay more attention, will never work.
The disturbing subtext to this debate is that while we have engineered our cars to be much safer, with all sorts of passive safety devices from multiple air bags to crumple zones, we refuse to consider incorporating similar passive safety standards for pedestrians in road design.
The conclusion is unavoidable: that hundreds of pedestrian deaths and thousands of injuries are an acceptable price to pay for driving convenience.
Hume also points out that most of the pedestrians were killed doing exactly what the police wanted them to do (obey lights, cross at intersections).
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