We need an approach to traffic safety that assumes people are imperfect and establishes an environment that is more fault tolerant than our streets are today.
By Ryan McGreal
Published March 08, 2011
Four police reports in the past couple of days have detailed a string of recent tragedies on Hamilton streets.
On Friday, March 4 at around 8:30 PM, a 23-year-old woman crossing Barton St just east of Normanhurst Ave was hit by a westbound vehicle. She died in hospital six hours later.
Also on Friday night, at around 11:30 PM, a man driving a pickup truck with three passengers on Jerseyville Rd heading east from Alberton Rd lost control of the truck and rolled into a ditch, crashing into a tree.
One passenger - an eleven-year-old girl - died in the crash. The other three, all adults, were taken to hospital. One is in critical but stable condition and the other two have non-life-threatening injuries.
Yesterday morning, an SUV heading north on East 14th St at Howe Ave collided with a minivan heading west on Howe Ave and sent the van ricocheting northwest - right into a fifteen-year-old boy on the sidewalk walking east to school. The boy was rushed to hospital but pronounced dead on arrival. No one else was injured.
Almost two hours later, a vehicle traveling east on Main St through Ferguson Ave and struck a 56-year-old man running north across Main. The pedestrian went through the vehicle windshield and his vital signs were absent when paramedics arrived. He survived but remains in hospital with fractured bones and multiple internal injuries.
Police are still investigating these tragedies. If you witnessed either the Barton St or Main St incident, contact Detective Constable Hendrik Vendercraats at 905-546-4753; if you witnessed either the Jerseyville Rd or the East 14th incident, contact Detective Constable Jeff Majik at 905-546-4755.
Through their investigations, the police must determine who, if anyone, was at fault for each of these incidents. In the meantime, there will be no shortage of moralistic armchair commentary exhorting motorists and/or pedestrians to be more responsible and careful. I'm going to try not to add to the noise.
This kind of emotional reaction is understandable. The news that someone in our own community has died hits each of us at a deep, personal level, and - well, let's be honest, we all have complex emotional bonds to our lifestyles, bonds that make us defensive if we perceive that we are under attack.
The faultlines that run through our city also run through our hearts: urban vs. suburban, driving vs. walking, car culture vs. street culture. We tend to overload our living and transportation arrangements with character judgments - and the judgments flow both ways.
When tragedy strikes, we force-map the skeleton of events into our ideologies and make up our minds therein. We react to tragedy by moralizing, by looking for someone to blame. We all do this. I catch myself doing it, too.
We need to stop.
If we really care about safety, we need to turn our attention to the framework in which the kinds of accidents that result in tragedy take place. Safety engineers in high-reliability industries understand clearly that train-and-blame simply doesn't work.
Exhorting people to be more careful doesn't stop us from making mistakes, getting distracted, losing focus, taking short cuts and so on. As aerospace engineer James Bagian puts it:
Telling people to be careful is not effective. Humans are not reliable that way. Some are better than others, but nobody's perfect. You need a solution that's not about making people perfect.
Motorists will drive too fast and run stop signs. Pedestrians will listen to music too loudly and play leapfrog through traffic. There may be a kind of grim satisfaction in concluding that people get what they deserve, but that mentality is simply no use for preventing additional harm.
When mistakes can result in the tragic loss of life, we need to do better than an approach that favours enforcement before the fact and assigns blame after the fact.
We need an approach that assumes people are imperfect and establishes an environment that is more fault-tolerant than our streets are today: streets in which neither driver error nor pedestrian error are likely to result in loss of life.
Since vehicle speed is so strongly correlated with fatality risk, such an environment must necessarily slow the flow of automobile traffic down to 30 km/h or lower in areas where motor vehicles and pedestrians cross paths.
The answer is not to control pedestrians through rules that restrict their movement. People have the right to move freely under their own power in their own neighbourhoods. Nor is the answer to control motorists through arbitrary laws that require the motorists themselves to comply.
Instead, we need to engineer our city streets to be inherently safe so that mistakes are no longer deadly.
With the City in the midst of developing a Pedestrian Master Plan, there is no better time than the present for us to formally shift our priorities away from traffic-flow-at-all-costs and toward the inherent safety of people moving through their communities via all modes.