Toronto

A form of 'victim blaming'? Pedestrian safety session for seniors aims to curb deaths, but also draws ire

In an attempt to crack down on senior citizen pedestrian injuries and deaths, Toronto police took to a Scarborough mall Saturday with a safety session targeted specifically toward seniors — but the initiative has some calling foul over what they say is "victim blaming." 

More than 1,100 pedestrians have been hit in Toronto this year with 31 killed, 9 of whom were seniors

The session was held at Woodside Square mall, where Toronto police officers shared safety tips and handed out reflective arm bands for seniors when they're out and about. (Angelina King/CBC)

Toronto police took to a Scarborough mall Saturday with a pedestrian safety session targeted specifically toward seniors — but the initiative has some calling foul over what they say is "victim blaming." 

The session, held at Woodside Square mall, was an attempt to curb senior pedestrian injuries and deaths, with officers sharing safety tips and handing out reflective arm bands.

"Instead of keeping on reminding the drivers, we also want to help the pedestrians to raise their awareness and provide them with a simple tool that can help them," Const. David Huang told CBC News.

"If we can even reduce pedestrian collisions by one then I think it's all worth our time."

2 seniors seriously hurt in last 24 hours

The initiative comes just days after police announced a new enforcement unit aimed specifically at cracking down on dangerous drivers and protecting pedestrians in the wake of a spike in traffic collisions that have killed dozens of people. 

Its urgency was underscored by two incidents on Friday alone in which senior-age pedestrians were sent to hospital with life-threatening injuries.

In one, a 91-year-old man was struck in the Avenue Road and Lawrence Avenue area Friday afternoon. In the second, an 84-year-old man was in the crosswalk in the St. Clair Avenue and Christie Street area around 11:30 p.m. when he was hit by what police say is a dark-coloured Volkswagen SUV that they say fled the scene.. 

Saturday's event was initiated by Ward 23 Coun. Cynthia Lai, who said she asked police to hold the session because of the number of fatalities at mid-block crossings in Scarborough.

Police say more than 1,100 pedestrians have been hit in Toronto this year. Thirty-one of them have been killed, 9 of whom were seniors. 

'People are driving too fast'

But for advocate Jessica Spieker of Friends and Families for Safe Streets, initiatives like Saturday's miss the mark.

"They're out there doing something that the evidence shows us does not work and is in fact a form a victim blaming," she said.

"There is clear statistical evidence that driver behaviour is largely at fault along with infrastructure design. So these are the things we need to aggressively target." 

For advocate Jessica Spieker of Friends and Families for Safe Streets, initiatives like Saturday's miss the mark. (Aneglina King/CBC)

Police say road safety is a collective effort, however.

Seniors are "overly represented and that's why we're putting on information sessions like we did today to specifically target and get the message out," said Sgt. Murray Campbell with the traffic services unit. 

A day after the event, Toronto Mayor John Tory's office issued a statement saying "everyone must do their part to stop these preventable deaths and injuries, but that the primary onus rests with drivers in powerful steel vehicles."

The statement from spokesperson Don Peat cited the recently launched Vision Zero 2.0 plan aimed at speeding up road redesign work, reducing speed limits across the city and the new dedicated traffic enforcement unit.

It added that the city has doubled the number of red light cameras on its streets to 149, and plans to double it again. The statement also said the mayor is focused on working to get approval from the province to have 50 automated speed enforcement cameras across the city beginning in December. 

'The arm band, it's very important,' said senior citizen Chreiste Drews. (Keith Burgess/CBC)

Also Sunday, Toronto's deputy police chief issued a statement responding to the criticism, saying the session was held as part of Pedestrian Safety Month through the police's Chinese Community Consultative Committee. 

"The committee had also requested hi-visibility armbands be made available as a safety tool, because visibility is a key contributing factor in many pedestrian, road and traffic incidents," said Deputy Chief Peter Yuen. 

Regardless, for senior citizen Chreiste Drews, "The arm band is very important."

"When you walk especially in the dark or early into the morning, it's always a little bit ... people are driving too fast, they don't look," she said. Drews also said she's noticed plenty of seniors crossing without paying attention.

"Before you step you really have to watch what you're doing," she said.

But she had a message for drivers too: Look both ways and slow down. 

With files from Angelina King

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