Pedestrian collisions spike in bad weather, but technology could help

During a dark and rainy morning commute in Toronto on Wednesday, a dozen pedestrians were hit by vehicles, but there are things that can be done to reduce collisions, despite the slickness of the road or the shifting morning light around season changes.

In Canada's major cities, police respond to calls of pedestrians hit by vehicles every day

Heavy rain, brought by the remnants of Hurricane Patricia, made for a dark and rainy commute Wednesday morning in Toronto, during which a dozen pedestrians were struck by vehicles. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

On average, six pedestrians are hit by vehicles every day in Toronto. On Wednesday, that number doubled during a dark and rainy morning commute with reduced visibility.

Officials reiterated the usual warnings and precautions, reminding drivers and pedestrians to stay alert when visibility is low, to stay off smartphones, make eye contact with one another and to be sure everyone remains visible.

But in Canada's major cities, police respond to calls of pedestrians hit by vehicles every day.

Here are some things that could be done to reduce pedestrian collisions, despite the slickness of the roads or dimmer light as the season changes.

Automobile technology

Const. Clint Stibbe of the Toronto Police Traffic Services blames pedestrians and drivers equally for the collisions.

Drivers develop bad habits and get distracted, he said, while pedestrians haphazardly walk out from between cars or cross the street mid-block, often lost in the glowing screens of their smartphones.

"Pedestrians and drivers are making mistakes," he said, adding that even with officers at every intersection pedestrians would still get hit.
Automobile technology that detects pedestrians by radar and activates vehicle brakes regardless of a driver's actions could help reduce the dangers posed by distracted driving. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Automobile technology that detects pedestrians by radar and activates brakes regardless of the driver's actions could one day greatly reduce the dangers posed by distracted driving or low visibility.

Cars available today can do this, but they are out of most drivers' price range, and it's unlikely the feature will be available to the masses for another decade, said Barrie Kirk, executive director of the Canadian Automated Vehicles Centre of Excellence. Kirk predicts that by 2025 the auto industry in Canada will see a wide penetration of self-driving cars on the road.

"These self-driving cars will be more aware of the environment than a driver ever will be," he said of the vehicles' pedestrian protection systems, which use radar to detect obstacles in a car's path. "They don't get distracted or tired. They work day or night."

Mitsubishi Electric is developing a new indicator system in its vehicles that might help pedestrians sooner than the self-driving car. The vehicles project animated illuminations of the vehicle's intended path on the road, making the driver's intentions more obvious to everyone around the car. 

The technology premieres at the Tokyo Auto Show opening tomorrow.

Mitsubishi Electric has developed projector turn signals to give a better early warning to pedestrians and drivers. (Mitsubishi Electric )

Traffic law reform

Seattle did away with legal right-hand turns at red lights at a number of downtown intersections earlier this year. The change was implemented to make street crossings safer for pedestrians. 

The city's right-turn-on-red ban is called Vision Zero, and its goal is to end traffic deaths and serious injuries by 2030.

Vancouver has considered following suit, but a CBC poll suggests it is an unpopular idea among residents.

"They do make the streets safer for pedestrians in situations where you have high volumes of pedestrians," traffic engineer Jan Voss told CBC. But blanket implementation on all lights, like in Montreal and New York where it's illegal to turn right on a red light, typically turns these plans into unpopular and unsuccessful ideas, Voss said.

Patrick Brown is a lawyer with the Bike Law Network representing a coalition of pedestrian and cycling safety groups. He said stiffening penalties for people who hit pedestrians with their vehicles would be a helpful deterrent.

"There has been a whole push in the U.S. where they've introduced this type of law — where if you hit any vulnerable road user, you will be subject to harsher penalties like licence suspension, community service or even jail for repeat offenders," he said.

There are currently no legal ramifications for distracted walking, but Brown said any blame placed on distracted pedestrians is a form of victim shaming.

"There is incentive for a pedestrian to take care and pay attention, because they can be horribly injured or killed. The same factor doesn't apply to someone in their car.

"Slow down. Stop looking at your phone," Brown says to drivers.

Urban planning changes

The infrastructure of cities themselves can be friendly or unfriendly to pedestrians.

Building narrower streets with dedicated bike lanes or installing islands in the middle of multi-lane street crossings can keep pedestrians safer, Brown said. There is less distance for them to travel in the time allotted to cross the street, reducing the chance they will get caught in the road trying to make a changing light.

An Ontario coroner's report has suggested that intersections with high rates of collision should have leading pedestrian signal intervals, essentially giving pedestrians a head start before vehicles get a green light.

Urban planners with pedestrian safety in mind are building cities where pedestrians have safe and direct access to major transportation hubs, and implementing more mid-block pedestrian crossings.

"It's not that reasonable for people to walk that far to get to a controlled crossing on long blocks," Brown said. 


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