The only way to achieve a real reduction in pedestrian casualties is through a street network designed to anticipate, tolerate and forgive human imperfection.
By Ryan McGreal
Published April 11, 2011
At 8:30 this morning I was standing at the southeast corner of Locke Street North and King Street West, waiting for the light to change so I could cross northbound. Two girls - I'll guess they were around 12 years old - were standing on the northeast corner waiting to cross southbound.
The girls were chatting and maybe not paying that much attention to their surroundings. The light hadn't yet changed (King Street gets a long green ligh), but one girl suddenly stepped forward onto the street, and the other girl, taking her cue, stepped out as well.
They were maybe a lane and a half across the street when an approaching car honked repeatedly and slowed, edging to the left to avoid hitting them.
They jumped in shock and backpedaled furiously onto the curb again, grabbing each other for support and looking terrified. By the time the light changed and they crossed with trepidation after looking back and forth several times, they were giggling nervously again.
The two girls were lucky. Thank goodness that driver was alert and cautious and managed to avoid a collision. Not all drivers are.
From some of the hyperbole flying around recently with respect to pedestrian safety in Hamilton, some people apparently believe that if these girls had been struck by a car, it would be their fault and they would deserve whatever happened to them.
But as I tried to argue in an earlier essay, it's just not good enough to exhort people to be more careful and then hold them personally accountable when they make mistakes. I'll quote again from James Bagian, the aerospace engineer-turned-medical patient safety officer:
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.
Let me repeat that: You need a solution that's not about making people perfect. People are not perfect and will never be. If we really want to prevent more fatalities, we have to abandon the strategy of trying to legislate, browbeat and threaten people into being as careful as they ought to be.
Instead, 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.
King Street is wide and unencumbered along the stretch starting at Locke: four lanes all westbound increasing just past Locke to five, synchronized lights, no curbside parking, no visual distractions. Traffic routinely bears down this stretch at 50-60 km/hr.
(Pedestrians aren't even allowed to cross north-south on the west side of the intersection, lest they get in the way of some motorist turning west onto King.)
The environment is set up to punish error - not only to increase the likelihood that an error will result in a casualty, but also to increase the severity of any injuries that do take place.
The kinetic energy of a vehicle is proportionate to the square of its velocity (KE = 1/2 mv2). Traffic collision studies reflect this: the collision fatality rate for pedestrians is 5% for vehicles traveling at 32 km/h and jumps to 85% for vehicles traveling at 64 km/h.
Vehicles traveling at higher speeds have not only a much higher chance of killing any pedestrians they hit, but also a higher chance of hitting pedestrians in the first place, due to increased reaction time and longer stopping distances.
In other words, the faster your vehicle is going, the longer it takes you to bring it to a stop if something gets in your way.
Again, traffic collision research clearly demonstrates this geometric correlation: a moving vehicle has about twice the risk of a casualty crash at 65 km/h compared to 60 km/h, and about four times the risk at 70 km/h compared to 60 km/h.
It's as easy as it is unhelpful to blame distracted or impatient or careless pedestrians for putting themselves in danger. The simple fact is that there will be pedestrians who do these things - and on an intolerant road network, there will be collisions and casualties.
No amount of enforcement is enough to force every pedestrian to be careful and safe every time.
The only way to achieve that is through a street network designed to anticipate, tolerate and forgive human imperfection. Our fast network of multi-lane, one-way thoroughfares is anything but forgiving to pedestrians.
A forgiving network is a network engineered so that vehicles move slowly enough that a) the risk of hitting pedestrians is much lower and b) the risk of injuring pedestrians in a collision is also much lower.
To achieve this, we need to give up the incompatible transportation goal of moving large volumes of vehicles at high speeds. It's that simple.