As It Happens

Pedestrian armbands 'never meant to be victim blaming': Toronto councillor

A Toronto city councillor is pushing back against charges that a new initiative to get seniors to wear reflective armbands smacks of "victim blaming" in a city that has seen dozens of pedestrian deaths in the last year alone.

Cynthia Lai organized event to have police give tips, reflective armbands to 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)

A Toronto city councillor is pushing back against charges that a new initiative to get seniors to wear reflective armbands smacks of "victim blaming" in a city that has seen dozens of pedestrian deaths in the last year alone.

Coun. Cynthia Lai organized an event in her Scarborough ward Saturday aimed at curbing senior pedestrian injuries and deaths. Police officers shared safety tips and handed out reflective arm bands.

"They're out there doing something that the evidence shows us does not work and is in fact a form a victim blaming," Jessica Spieker of Friends and Families for Safe Streets told CBC News. 

"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."

Police say more than 1,100 pedestrians have been hit in Toronto in 2019. Thirty-one of them died, including nine seniors. 

Lai spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off. Here is part of their conversation. 

What does it say about your city that you're telling seniors to wear reflective armbands in order to go for a walk?

This is not just about wearing the armbands. We are telling seniors how to prevent accidents when they are pedestrians, and [an] armband is just one of the, you know, solutions.

What else are you telling them to protect themselves when they go out for a walk?

We are telling them that they should maintain eye contact with the driver. They should be aware of what's going on around them. And also, as they grow older, they might have some challenges with hearing or maybe with eyesight or something. They are at greater risk.

So [they should] be more aware of what's going on around them. And just to make sure that because they are getting older, maybe they shouldn't be crossing the street when the light is flashing yellow.

Toronto Coun. Cynthia Lai aid she asked police to hold a session on pedestrian safety for seniors because of the number of fatalities in her Scarborough ward. (Vote Cynthia Lai/Facebook )

How do you mostly get around the city yourself?

I do driving.

How often do you walk?

I walk too, but not a lot. I walk to the plaza close to my home to go shopping.

Do you ride a bike?

I don't, no.

Do you have any idea what it's like for pedestrians and cyclists in the city?

I do. I do. I do know.

How do you know that?

Because some of my friends actually, they got hurt. They were biking and up in Scarborough. And we don't have any a dedicated bike lanes in Scarborough yet, and that's, you know, probably another issue that we have to deal with.

OK, so these are the things you think you should do you: We should wear reflective clothing. Seniors should wear armbands. They should be very careful maybe not even cross the road at all if the road's lights flashing.

I haven't heard you say anything about what the drivers should do.

They should watch about the speed limit and they should be ... obeying all these signs and all that kind of thing. I mean, I'm a driver myself and that's what, you know, I should be doing.

At the end of October, if I get this straight, there was a an effort recommended in a program called Vision Zero to reduce the speed on Markham Road in your community.

On three streets in my ward, yes.

To reduce it by 10 kilometres an hour, just by that much. How did you vote in that?

I actually made a motion to exclude Markham Road because I did a lot of consultations in my ward because it's very important that I seek, you know, consultation from all the local residents. And most of them don't seem to think that is a speed limit thing.

OK, I thought you just said a moment ago that the drivers should reduce their speed. But you're saying it's not a speed limit thing that's causing people to get run over.

From the statistics from the fatalities in my ward, none of them up about speed limits.

How did you conduct this research?

There's staff reports on traffic and ... police reports too.

You had a community meeting, right?

Yeah, I had a community meeting. 

But is it true that you conducted a show of hands at this community meeting?

It's everything. It's talking to them and communicating with them and seeking, you know, their input and comments.

Were they pedestrians or were they driving cars like you?

I don't know. I didn't ask that question.

The city has committed to eliminating pedestrian deaths altogether. Can you understand that people are frustrated that 31 people have died on Toronto streets this year?

I am very frustrated and that's why any initiative for me to educate and for me to ... reduce the amount of fatalities on the street is very important to me.

So then why did you vote against reducing the speed limit by 10 kilometres an hour?

Because the people in my ward, I am their voice there. I'm just representing their voice right.

How about policing the roads, because we learned last week — people were quite shocked to learn — that for the past five years ... there's not been officers whose duty it was among the police to enforce traffic and to be supervising that.

Over that same five years the police removed that traffic enforcement squad, that's when we've seen this spike in fatalities and injuries. Do you think that ...

That's exactly the point.

What's the point?

The point was why would you reduce sped if there's no enforcement? The reality is that the police don't have any budget to increase, you know, their staff to do enforcement.

OK, I'm not following. You're saying that there's no point in reducing the speed limit because there's no police to enforce it?

I didn't say that. I mean, at the community meeting, people are raising this point. 

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

The police have now said that they are going to return that traffic enforcement after people were so shocked to find out that that had happened while this spike in fatalities it happened.

Do you see why people might consider what you're saying is victim blaming? That the people who are actually the victims of these accidents are the ones that have to take responsibility for them, and not the drivers?

It's never meant to be victim blaming. You know, just like when you are asking kids to go out trick-or-treat[ing], you ask them to wear reflective clothing. Is that victim blaming?

It's never, never meant to be victim blaming. And it's meant to be awareness-raising awareness, and meant to be education, meant to be communicating and working together to make sure that our streets are safe and improve safety.

OK, but you think ... roads can be safer as if people wear reflective gear and safety gear to go up for a walk? That would make them safer?

At the end of the day, if we can save one more life by doing it, that is a worthwhile initiative. And actually, it's very well-received. I've got requests from other senior homes ... to repeat our presentations.

I'm sure they do. They don't want to be run over.

I wish we can do more things proactively to teach and to educate our seniors. And I just wish people will give it more positive energy to make sure that we work together to save more lives and to make sure that our pedestrians are safe.

I think, well, if you were giving these instructions to the drivers, they might feel safer.

Everybody has responsibility — the drivers, the bikers, pedestrians, the city staff, the police and including myself as the ward councillor. Everybody has the responsibility to make sure to ensure we have a safe streets.


Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from CBC News. Interview produced by Sarah Jackson. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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