It's war out there as an ever-increasing number of drivers, pedestrians and cyclists compete for space on the world's roads.

Motor vehicle-related fatalities have been a fact of life since Irish scientist Mary Ward fell under the wheels of her cousin's steam-powered automobile in August 1869. She fell out of the vehicle as it hit a sharp curve — long before cars came with seat belts, air bags or even doors and drivers were distracted by GPS devices, cellphones or hot coffee spilling in their laps.

road-traffic-deaths

Traffic deaths in Canada have been trending downward since the early 1970s. ((World Health Organization))

Thirty years later, Henry Bliss stepped off a trolley in New York City, turned to help the woman he was accompanying and was hit by a taxi. He died later in hospital, becoming the first pedestrian to be killed by a motor vehicle.

The World Health Organization estimates that more than a million people die each year on the roads. In Canada, 2,889 people were killed in traffic accidents in 2006. More than 1,500 were drivers of cars or trucks, approximately 635 were passengers in cars or trucks, 375 were pedestrians and 87 were cyclists.

While the number of Canadians killed on the roads has been falling steadily since the early 1970s, the percentage of fatal accidents involving pedestrians killed has remained around 13 per cent. According to Transport Canada:

  • 419 pedestrians were killed in 1999.
  • 335 pedestrians were killed in 2001.
  • 374 pedestrians were killed in 2006.

In the city of Toronto, eight pedestrians were killed in the first 26 days of 2010 compared to 31 for all of 2009. Six others died during the same period of January in the suburbs surrounding the city.

Pedestrian fatalities  
Vancouver (2007) 13
Edmonton (2007) 13
Toronto (2007) 23
Montreal (2007) 24
New York City (2006) 157
Los Angeles (2006) 99
Chicago (2006) 48

Most pedestrian and cyclist deaths occur in urban areas, often during rush hour or at night. Most victims — more than 60 per cent — are male.

Gil Penalosa, transportation activist and the executive director of the agency 8-80 Cities, has been vocal in trying to make cities safer for pedestrians and cyclists.

Penalosa has advised organizations around the world on how to reduce the rate of accidents in urban areas. Among his recommendations are:

  • Create speed bumps and more signs to increase driver awareness.
  • Install more lights on city sidewalks.
  • Ban right turns on red lights.
  • Reduce speed limits.
  • Give pedestrians a five-second head start over cars on green lights.

Worst countries for pedestrian fatalities     
Country  Population  Year  Total road traffic fatalities  Pedestrian fatalities (% of all traffic fatalities) 
Peru  27,902,760  2007  3,510 78
Mozambique  21,396,916  2007  1,502 68 
El Salvador  6,857,328  2007  1,493 63 
Ukraine  46,205,382  2007  9,921 56 
Ethiopia   83,099,190  2006  2,517 55 
Statistics from other major countries     
Russian Federation  142,498,532 2007  33,308 36
China  1,336,317,116  2006  89,455 26
UK 60,768,946  2006  3,298 21
Mexico 106,534,880 2007  17,003 21
Germany  82,599,471 2007   4,949 14
Canada  32,876,047 2006 2,889  13 
Australia  20,743,179  2007 1,616  13
France  61,647,375  2007  4,620 12
 U.S.A. 305,826,246  2006  42,642 11

Source: World Health Organization

Angelo DiCicco, general manager of Young Drivers of Canada for the greater Toronto region, says changing the number on a sign won't change anything unless speeding laws are better enforced.

"You have to change the driving culture in our society," DiCicco said. "The best way to do that is through education, making the driver more aware of pedestrians and cyclists."

DiCicco notes that an advanced green for pedestrians and cyclists could be helpful because it would make drivers more aware of — and better able to see — others on the road.