Cross Country Checkup

Redesigning roads can reduce pedestrian deaths, but cities lack the political will: expert

Last year, 39 pedestrians in Toronto were killed in vehicle-related incidents, and across B.C., 49 died in similar incidents during the same period. Experts say the key to reducing those numbers is to change driver behaviour, but it can be a challenge.

'Cars need to be slowed down because they are simply weapons of death,' says urban planner Jennifer Keesmaat

Thirty-nine pedestrians were killed in Toronto last year in vehicle-related incidents. (David Donnelly/CBC)

Erica Stark was walking the family foster dog when she was struck and killed by a speeding minivan in November 2014.

Now, her husband David Stark is campaigning to make streets safer — and he says that more needs to be done in his home city, Toronto. 

"We're seeing incremental improvements, but they're not happening fast enough, and I think that there needs to be more money earmarked to prioritize road safety," Stark told Cross Country Checkup

Last year, 39 pedestrians in Toronto were killed in vehicle-related incidents, and across B.C., 49 died in similar incidents during the same period. Meanwhile, Montreal saw a record high with two dozen deaths. 

Yet, in Helsinki and Oslo, Norway, there were zero pedestrian deaths caused by vehicles.

Experts say the key to reducing those numbers is to change driver behaviour. But it can be a challenge, thanks to human nature.

According to University of Guelph psychology professor Lana Trick, as drivers become more comfortable behind the wheel — and it begins to feel "easy" — they lose focus on their surroundings. They may even partially turn their attention to another passenger or device.

"They say, 'I really don't need to fully concentrate on this because, after all, it doesn't require my full concentration.' And so they decide, 'maybe I'll talk to somebody,'" she said.

Slowing cars

Experts say that programs like Vision Zero — an approach that aims to reimagine urban infrastructure as more pedestrian friendly — are a key solution. 

"Vision Zero was started in Sweden on the understanding that people will make mistakes in cities. Pedestrians will do dumb things. Drivers will do dumb things," explained urban planner Jennifer Keesmaat, the former chief city planner for Toronto.

"The way to prevent [pedestrian deaths] is by designing our cities so that when humans do make mistakes, they're not fatal."

One way cities can force cars to slow down — and thereby reduce the risk of pedestrian deaths — is by narrowing streets, says urban planner Jennifer Keesmaat. (Michael McArthur/CBC)

At least five cities across Canada have announced Vision Zero-style approaches. When Sweden launched its program in 1997, the main objective was to slow vehicles down. 

This, Keesmaat explains, is a key factor in reducing deaths. According to the World Health Organization, 90 per cent of pedestrians struck by a vehicle driving at 30 km/h will survive. That drops to 50 per cent for vehicles travelling at over 45 km/h.

"Cars need to be slowed down because they are simply weapons of death when they're moving quickly," she said.

More than 1,100 pedestrians have been hit by motor vehicles in Toronto this year and more than 30 have been killed. Police and city officials set out to reduce pedestrian deaths in 2020 with Vision Zero program. 1:57

She says that cities can slow cars by narrowing streets, sometimes simply by adding barriers along outer lanes. Not only does the approach reduce the risk of death if a pedestrian is hit, but Keesmaat says it helps widen a driver's field of vision, making it easier to see people walking nearby.

Despite the data, Keesmaat says that there's little political will in cities across the country to implement the changes that will benefit pedestrians. 

"It goes very much against car culture, because Vision Zero is about putting the pedestrian first and the most vulnerable road users first," she said.

Consequences needed

Speed isn't the only factor in pedestrian-vehicle collisions, says Trick, the psychology professor. Distractions from technology play a big role, and pedestrians have a responsibility to be aware of their surroundings.

But she adds that drivers will often be hesitant to change their behaviour, particularly if there are few consequences.

"Every time somebody does something like they have a cellphone conversation, and there's no negative consequences, it almost teaches them that they can get away with it," Trick said.

David Stark, a co-founder of Friends and Families for Safe Streets, wants greater investment in making streets safer for pedestrians. (Kate McGillivray/CBC)

David Stark, who continues to advocate for safer streets after his wife's death, says change can't come soon enough.

In the five years since Erica was killed, there have been no changes to the speed limit — 50 km/h — in the area she was struck, he said.

"There are schools nearby. It's very residential. There's apartment buildings. And I think cars travelling at 50 km/h is too fast," he told Checkup.

Stark says he wants to see a "commitment" by politicians to fund infrastructure changes. Until then, he continues to share his late wife's story.

"The public, increasingly, [is] calling for action on the issue. But at the same time, when you look at the number of pedestrian deaths in Toronto and other cities, they're not going down," he said.

"Clearly more needs to happen."


On Sunday, Feb. 9, Cross Country Checkup will ask: Are pedestrians safe where you live?

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