After months of relative quiet, back-to-school season could test Toronto's road safety once again
The number of pedestrian deaths and injuries has sharply declined in 2020 due to COVID-19 restrictions
Pedestrian safety advocates say the deaths of two toddlers last week may be a harbinger of further tragedies as kids head back to school and more drivers return to the roads in the coming weeks.
"Hearing all of this just makes an explosion of sadness and anger and it renews all of our commitment," said Jessica Spieker of the advocacy group Friends and Family for Safe Streets.
"As we get more back to normal, we're going to have to start talking about this again because it's going to start happening again."
So far in 2020, the number of fatalities and serious injuries on Toronto roads had dropped off sharply, in large part because of reduced traffic due to COVID-19 restrictions. The city recorded zero pedestrian deaths in both March and April.
Still, 10 pedestrians have been killed so far this year, compared to 39 who were killed in 2019 and the recent record of 44 pedestrian deaths set in 2016.
Forty-six pedestrians and nine cyclists have also been seriously injured so far this year, compared to 133 and 39, respectively, in 2019.
Safety work hasn't stopped, city says
Despite the decline in deaths and injuries, the office managing Toronto's road safety program Vision Zero — which has the stated goal of completely eliminating deaths and serious injuries — says it continues to make important changes on the city's streets.
"City staff and Vision Zero partner agencies have not slowed down the implementation of Vision Zero efforts," said the city in a statement to CBC Toronto.
The city pointed to the installation of automated speed enforcement cameras, which have distributed some 7,600 tickets since they were installed in July. Toronto says it will also implement 80 additional school safety zones by the end of the year, which bring a number of safety enhancements to schools such as improved signage and flashing beacons.
Toronto is also in the process of reducing speed limits on 250 kilometres of minor arterials and collector roadways, the city said.
"There's no doubt, when a quarter million, 300,000 kids go back to school ... driver safety, pedestrian safety is paramount," said Coun. James Pasternk, chair of the city's Infrastructure and Environment Committee, which oversees Vision Zero.
"Those traffic volumes are going to start ticking up again and that's when we have to be most cautious."
Critics call for quicker, more substantial changes
But while road safety advocates like Spieker and Patrick Brown, head of Vulnerable Road Users Coalition, credited Toronto for a variety of its recent safety initiatives, both said that further improvements are needed to prevent fatalities from ticking back up to pre-pandemic levels.
"I know the plan is in place, I know installation is happening, but it's probably not at the rate that it should be done," said Brown, who describes Toronto's road safety issues as a crisis.
Spieker also said Toronto must consider more substantial changes to roads and sidewalks, especially around schools. She said the city should consider narrowing roads and building infrastructure that physically separates or protects pedestrians and cyclists from cars.
"Thinking of kids' routes to school, specifically, we haven't seen any infrastructure redesigns," she said.
"It's up to politicians whether they're going to prioritize the safety of our children as opposed to the perceived convenience for car drivers."
Pasternak, however, noted that less than a quarter of collisions involving children take place in school zones.
"It's arterial roads that are the real menace out there and that's where we're putting more focus," he said.