Six people are hit by a car each day in Toronto. We know how to fix it, so why don't we?

The Walking Dead

In New York and London, pedestrian fatalities have plummeted. In Toronto, six people are hit by a car every day, and the death rates are climbing. We know how to fix it. So why don’t we?

By Mark Pupo| Photography by Derek Shapton
| August 23, 2019

Maria Dorsey met Jack Miehm six years ago on OkCupid. Maria was a widowed 53-year-old administrator at Ryerson. She had two adult daughters and lived in a Scarborough bungalow with a golden retriever named Quincy Jones. Jack, a 54-year-old contractor, lived nearby in an Upper Beaches apartment. He had two adult kids of his own. After exchanging texts, Jack and Maria met for dinner and, four hours later, were still talking and flirting. She liked his warmth and inexhaustible optimism. He was attracted to the mischievous sparkle in her eyes and how she said exactly what she thought. Nine months after they met, he moved in. This, as far as Maria and Jack were concerned, meant they were together for good.

On the morning of September 26, 2018, Jack left their home at 7 a.m. to catch a bus on nearby St. Clair East, which runs two lanes in each direction. He was headed to a Home Depot to buy drywall for a midtown café he was helping to fix up. That week had been hot and humid, reaching 30 degrees. He wore faded camouflage shorts, a sweatshirt, Adidas flip-flops and a baseball cap. He arrived at the southwest corner of the intersection of St. Clair and Jeanette and waited for the light to change.

What happened next was captured by a security camera on a neighbouring house. The light turned red for traffic on St. Clair, and a westbound car slowed to a stop. Jack stepped onto the crosswalk. Just then, another car, a black Dodge Caravan heading east on St. Clair, drove through the light and struck Jack from the side.

Six people are hit by a car each day in Toronto. We know how to fix it, so why don't we?
Jack Miehm died on September 26, 2018, when a minivan hit him while he was crossing St. Clair East

Humans aren’t designed for sudden impact. If you’re lucky, you walk away with a fractured arm or leg. If you’re not, the car shatters your femur, splits your pelvis or snaps your spine. Lungs collapse, cracked ribs puncture organs, shoes fly off. Sometimes, you’ll be thrown into a fire hydrant or some other immovable object and experience a cranial-cervical dislocation—your skull might pop clear off.

Jack was a big man—six foot two and 240 pounds. The force of the impact broke off a piece of the minivan’s passenger-side mirror and shot Jack straight into the air, snapping his neck. (Staff at Scarborough General later told Maria that he likely died in that instant.) As his body fell, he slid fast across the pavement, which shredded the flesh on his back down to the bone. When he hit the curb, he flipped over, landing face-down in the gutter.

The black minivan, a chariot of death, sped away.

Jack Miehm was the 28th of 41 pedestrians killed in Toronto last year. (That total excludes the 10 people who died during the April 2018 van attack in North York.) But, of course, not all victims of traffic accidents die. Between 2008 and 2012, an average of 2,074 pedestrians were hit by cars every year. In other words, six people are struck every day in this city.

Here are five basic rules to avoid becoming another statistic. 1. Don’t walk anywhere between January and March, when the shortened daylight hours cause more collisions. 2. Don’t walk on Halloween—one study found that pedestrians have a higher chance of being killed that night. 3. Don’t walk on Thursdays, when most pedestrians are killed (apparently a statistical anomaly). 4. Don’t walk in the afternoon, which is more dangerous than the morning, possibly because drivers are more impatient and pedestrians less careful. 5. Don’t ever, ever jaywalk. It’s a leading cause of pedestrian death.

Here’s another basic rule: don’t leave the house if you’re over 65. Safety advocates classify pedestrians and cyclists as vulnerable road users—and the most vulnerable of the vulnerable are seniors, who generally have poorer vision, can’t leap out of traffic and succumb more easily to injuries. According to one report, people over 65 accounted for 36 per cent of pedestrian deaths in Ontario in 2010, even though they comprised only 13 per cent of the population.

Six people are hit by a car each day in Toronto. We know how to fix it, so why don't we?
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Year after year, some of the deadliest streets are in the inner suburbs—Scarborough, Etobicoke and North York—where the boulevards are wider, the speed limits often higher, distances between designated crosswalks longer and drivers feel an irresistible urge to rage like Mad Max. January 2018 was an especially bad month to be old in Scarborough. On January 2, a man driving a Toyota struck a 71-year-old man, who was crossing Brimley near Heather Road and died three days later from his injuries. A week later, a Canada Post worker hit and killed a 74-year-old woman who was trying to cross Eglinton at Rosemount, pinning her under his delivery van. Then, to wrap up the month, on January 24 a woman driving a Ford Escape killed a 63-year-old man crossing Warden near Bamburgh Circle.

All this death undercuts Toronto’s exceptionalism—our belief that we have a superior quality of life, that we’ve figured it out, that we ought to win best-places-to-live rankings. Our annual pedestrian fatality rate is 1.3 per 100,000 residents. In New York and London, pedestrian deaths are dropping. Here, the rate remains stubbornly high.

The reasons are numerous and tangled. They have to do with how our city was built, how we police (or don’t police) traffic, how we penalize (or don’t penalize) reckless driving, and how the city’s growth spurt has turned roads into racetracks. The tally of 41 dead confirms, as if we needed more evidence, that our elected officials, our police force and our lumbering bureaucracies can’t work together and can’t get things done.

Dead pedestrians used to cause riots. Before cars, North American streets were more like public squares, shared by pedestrians, streetcars, horse-drawn carts and tradespeople hauling goods. We forget how the car—private property—took over the public realm and changed the rules fully in its favour. In 1916, there were only 11,000 registered vehicles in Toronto; by 1941, there were 159,000 for a city of only 668,000 people. If a child got hit by a car in the 1920s—at the time, the majority of victims were kids—the driver might be swarmed by an angry mob. Police would need to step in to prevent lynchings.

It’s a small irony that Toronto’s inner suburbs, now deadly for pedestrians, were originally designed to protect residential neighbourhoods from cars. Developers, responding to a postwar population boom and a newly flush middle class, built some 70,000 single-family homes in Toronto’s outer ring between 1954 and 1964. Like suburban developers across North America, they rejected the Victorian-era gridiron pattern of downtown streets, where cars and pedestrians shared the roads, for a vision of detached homes dotting idyllic, winding streets and cul-de-sacs. Traffic was ushered to outer arterial roads, and sidewalks were rare, or built long after the fact, because homeowners wanted deep lawns—and besides, if you needed to get to the grocery store or the mall, you had to drive.

The arterials became, in effect, commuter highways. St. Clair and Midland, two blocks from where Jack Miehm was killed, is a prime example. Waves of cars rush by, merging in and out of turning lanes and trying to avoid buses. Hundreds of metres separate crosswalks, which is why there are often groups of pedestrians crowding on medians Frogger-style, waiting for a light to change and traffic to slow so they can race across.

As 2018 came to an end and Toronto’s death toll climbed—two more victims in one week in December, and another two over Christmas—it looked like riots and lynchings could make a comeback. Safety advocacy groups called for a reckoning. Anger was mainly directed at city council, and for good reason: they’d promised a solution and hadn’t delivered.

Five years ago, Jaye Robinson, the councillor for Don Valley West and then chair of public works and infrastructure, proposed a new pedestrian safety initiative that took inspiration from a Swedish model called Vision Zero. Under Vision Zero, the only acceptable number of injuries and deaths is no injuries and deaths. Not reduced deaths—zero deaths. Its methods: speed reductions on all streets, in-your-face safety awareness campaigns and redesigned roadways that physically separate drivers from pedestrians.

Stockholm, Edmonton and New York have had success with Vision Zero. New York’s program has been one of the most dramatic, with a 10-year budget of $2.7 billion (U.S.) and a drop in annual pedestrian and cyclist deaths from 286 in 2013, the year before the program was implemented, to 124 in 2018. Bill de Blasio, the city’s mayor, likes to brag that his streets haven’t been this safe for pedestrians since 1910—before cars took over. De Blasio approached pedestrian deaths as a crisis in need of an emergency response, overruling community councils to install bike lanes and other traffic-calming measures; narrowing streets like the 12-lane Queens Boulevard (known as the “boulevard of death”) with bus-only lanes and wider medians and sidewalks; and reducing speed limits throughout the city.

Enforcing lower speed limits is the most crucial part of Vision Zero. It’s also the one that invites the most protest from drivers. A pedestrian has approximately a 90 per cent chance of survival when hit by a vehicle moving at 30 kilometres per hour. Anything faster, and the survival rate drops precipitously. A car driving at 50 kilometres per hour is almost eight times more likely to kill a pedestrian than a car driving at 30 kilometres per hour. Many other variables are at play, like the type of car (SUVs are deadlier than sedans, because they tend to crush a body on impact, whereas a sedan may knock it sideways), the weather (rainy days are deadlier) and the pedestrian’s height (where the car hits your head has much to do with your survival rate). No matter the circumstances, slower cars kill fewer people.

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In July 2016, Toronto council approved $80.3 million over five years for Robinson’s program. Toronto officially became a Vision Zero city. It was doomed from the start.

The cities where Vision Zero works all have one thing in common: they’ve dedicated lots of money and resources to swift and universal changes to infrastructure, policing and safety awareness. Most importantly, they’ve cut speed limits on most or all streets. The strength of Vision Zero comes from an all-or-nothing approach—to achieve zero deaths, you need to force drivers to change their behaviour all at once.

Our approach was, by contrast, incremental and tentative—in other words, typically Torontonian. New York’s Vision Zero budget, the equivalent of $244 per capita, dwarfs the funds Toronto dedicated to Vision Zero—$34 per capita. In Toronto’s first Vision Zero year, the city installed 134 red-light cameras, added 32 new crosswalks, introduced 32 safety zones near retirement residences and schools, adjusted crosswalks at 30 intersections to give pedestrians more time to cross, and lowered speed limits on 54 roads. Those 54 streets were selected because they had the highest rates of what the city calls pedestrian KSIs (killed or seriously injured).

Compared to the typical pace of Toronto’s public works efforts, that first year was a lot. Compared to the Vision Zero standard, it amounted to half measures. Knowing what we know about car speeds and death rates, shouldn’t speeds have been cut on every street, without exception? By the same logic, why would the city not treat every single street as a seniors’ safety zone? The elderly live everywhere, not just in special old-people ghettos. Most Torontonians are barely aware of Vision Zero, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a single person who has noticed it improving the way we behave on our streets.

Robinson and Mayor John Tory prided themselves on a methodical approach to safety. Any new changes to our roads, they said, would be based on compelling data and evidence. To that end, some of the Vision Zero initiatives were strictly about data collection, not immediate death prevention. Robinson organized a pilot program of what they call automated speed-enforcement units—basically radar cameras that clock how fast a car is going—on eight streets in school zones. The aim of the pilot was to prove speeding is a problem—which it did beyond a doubt, if there was any doubt to begin with. In an average week, 60,170 of 103,180 cars were caught speeding in a 40-kilometre-per-hour zone on Avenue Road. The fastest car was clocked at 109 kilometres per hour. In a 40 zone on Renforth Drive in Etobicoke, a car was caught driving at 202 kilometres per hour. But not a single driver recorded speeding was charged with anything: under the province’s Highway Traffic Act, police aren’t permitted to make any arrests or issue tickets to drivers caught speeding on camera.

The new red-light cameras, crosswalks and reduced speed limits didn’t make a significant dent in the death rate. Robinson told me about her frustration with enforcement, specifically the lack of co-operation from the province to amend the Highway Traffic Act to allow for automated speed-enforcement ticketing. She petitioned the province to amend the act, or to make special exemptions for Toronto’s automated study. But all legislation came to a halt during the last provincial election. Then Doug Ford’s Progressive Conservatives came into power, showing a special malice for Tory’s Toronto, and, well, good luck getting any changes through.

Robinson seemed exhausted by the enormity of the Vision Zero goal. “We have a major infrastructure backlog. Plus there’s congestion, gridlock, road rage and a lot of people who aren’t respecting the rules of the road,” she told me. “At public meetings, I hear complaints about people blowing through stop signs.”

Half measures are one reason Vision Zero hasn’t had much impact. The other major factor is the age-old schism between suburban and downtown councillors. In most cases, downtown councillors gladly vote for the extensive changes to street design and city infrastructure prescribed by Vision Zero—dedicated bike lanes, physical barriers between pedestrians and vehicles, and sharper corners at intersections, which force drivers to slow down and pay more attention than they do when turning right on a rounded corner. Historically, suburban councillors have voted against changes, even when the affected areas are far removed from their wards. They often force delays that last months and sometimes years by sending any proposal back to city staff for more study. The downtown councillor tends to side with pedestrians and a Jane Jacobsian vision of urbanism; the suburban councillor sides with drivers.

The most notorious recent split in council is over a proposal to redesign Yonge between Sheppard and Finch. Some 56,000 people live in the neighbourhood, which is already dense with condo towers and is expected to almost double in population over the next few years. The street infrastructure, much of which dates from before North York built Mel Lastman Square, is due for an overhaul. In 2018, after three years of staff reports and environmental-impact studies, city staff made a final recommendation to reduce that section of Yonge from six lanes to four, and to use the extra space to add physically separated bike lanes and wider sidewalks that could accommodate more pedestrians, restaurant patios, benches and trees. They wanted to replace a highway-like corridor dedicated to moving cars with a neighbourhood people might actually want to live in. It’d be one of the highest-profile examples of Vision Zero thinking in action. John Filion, the local councillor, enthusiastically supported the plan, as did the outspoken urban planner Ken Greenberg. “Do we want to build this stretch of Yonge for the 1960s,” Greenberg asked, “or do we want to build it for the 21st century?”

When the proposal finally made it to council, debate about the risks of removing those two precious car lanes dragged on interminably. Those opposed to the plan fretted about the extra time that would be added to drivers’ commutes through the neighbourhood (an extra minute or two) and speculated that frustrated drivers would divert into residential streets. Notably, Tory had reservations. He sided with the public works committee, and proposed keeping Yonge’s six lanes and instead installing bike lanes on the adjacent Beecroft Road. Getting nowhere, council opted to defer the plan again for more study. There’s currently no scheduled vote.

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At the end of last year, Tory, smarting from the outrage about 2018’s high death count, tried a new tactic. He asked Robinson to chair the TTC, while James Pasternak, the councillor for the suburban ward of York Centre, took over the infrastructure file and inherited Vision Zero. In March, Tory and Pasternak held a press conference where they announced that Vision Zero had been replaced by Vision Zero 2.0, which was both a continuation and an upgrade of the original. It sounded suspiciously like an exercise in rebranding. As they listed their plans, it became clear that Vision Zero 2.0 would entail more of the same (more red-light cameras, more speed zone studies), with extra attention paid to Scarborough, which Tory seemed surprised to discover was difficult to navigate as a pedestrian. “The reality is,” he said, “especially if your destination is right across the street, many people will simply not walk the extra 12 minutes [to a crosswalk] and will instead cross mid-block.”

Pasternak also promised that of the $1 billion the city has committed to spend on infrastructure in 2019, $43.7 million would go toward Vision Zero projects, including $3.3 million to install pedestrian signals, which deliver audible walk signals for people who are blind or low-vision; $3 million to introduce sidewalks on streets without any; $1 million on road safety education initiatives; and $17.8 million on “local geometric transportation safety” (translation: rebuilding intersections so they’re less dangerous, with additions like head starts for pedestrians and raised crosswalks). Then, at the end of June, Tory and Pasternak announced they would soon be reducing speed limits. Once again, the reduction was on select streets, not across the city.

It takes a true civic visionary to make a program of infrastructure and speed reduction sound urgent and sexy. Pasternak, from all evidence, is not that guy. I asked him why he and Tory were taking the slow road to pedestrian safety, instead of the fast approach of other cities. He said that he sees Vision Zero as a two-part administrative challenge. First, to meet the demands of a rapidly growing city, he must rebuild a street system that’s 80 years old and a public transportation system that’s 30 years behind the times. Second, he has to educate us on why we need to slow down and respect the rules of the road. Like Robinson, he’s troubled by lawlessness—drivers speeding, texting and ignoring stop signs. He seemed most passionate about going after apps like Waze, which he called a “technological menace.” He said the app encourages people “to weave aggressively through sleepy residential neighbourhoods.” I know exactly what he means—I’ve often used the app to find a route out of the city on a long weekend. Every time the app refreshes the estimated time to your destination, it seems to be taunting you to drive faster. And as soon as you find that empty side street, you let it rip. Pasternak said he doesn’t use the app, and promised to consult with the company—it’s a matter of safety for his ward’s residents and the entire city.

The more I tried to unpack the logic of how the city was rolling out Vision Zero, the more I encountered the grind of bureaucracy and a culture of meekness. A week after my first talk with Pasternak, I asked when he planned to meet with Waze and end its tyranny of alternative route recommendations. In an email response, he completely changed his tune. “Navigation apps like Waze are an important way residents and visitors plan their travel in and around Toronto,” he wrote. “City staff...have been in contact with Waze to discuss the possibility of modifying routes within the app to help mitigate traffic through local streets and, in particular, our community safety zones. Through discussions, we understand that Waze is studying ‘safety zone alerts’ for possible future development.” Within a few minutes, he sent another email saying he wants to retract the word “menace” from our original interview. “If you could replace that with ‘problematic’ it would be appreciated,” he wrote.

A couple of months later, I went back to Pasternak for an update. What, I asked, is the timeline for implementing these promised safety zone alerts, and is he satisfied that they’ll fix the problem of extra traffic diverting into residential neighbourhoods? He sent a response through city communications staff. “I would encourage you to reach out to Waze directly to learn about their work as we are not in a position to comment on possible future enhancements by a third-party company,” it read.

I was starting to understand Robinson’s tone of exhausted resignation. We’ll never eliminate pedestrian deaths this way. The more city council talks about Vision Zero, the more it feels out of reach—a fantasy, like the much-promised Downtown Relief Line or Tory’s own SmartTrack system. Someday, maybe long after we’re all gone, Toronto will have new transit lines and solve pedestrian deaths.

Speed has a way of warping reality. Drivers don’t always realize how fast they’re going, and pedestrians often misjudge how quickly a car is approaching. This past May, I found myself hypnotized by a video of an unidentified 27-year-old woman crossing a four-lane stretch of the Queensway. Up until a crucial moment, it’s eerily reminiscent of the security camera video of Jack Miehm. She presses the button on the crosswalk, looks both ways at approaching traffic and walks into the street. Then a minivan races into the frame and rams her, tossing her several metres. Amazingly, she survived with non-life-threatening injuries. The video was shown on the evening news, reposted and shared widely, and prompted a few days of outrage. (Tory, asked for comment, called it “horrifying.”)

The most uncanny moment in that 10-second sequence is when she realizes she’s about to be hit and appears to jump out of her skin. It’s easy to picture yourself in her place, doing exactly what many of us do every day, making all the right decisions and placing your trust in drivers to see you and stop.

There’s no indication from the surveillance video that captured the collision if Jack saw the black minivan as it approached him. He must have been focused on the changing light and making it to his bus stop on time. The minivan must have been a blur in the corner of his eye.

The moment he was struck, his partner, Maria, a habitual early riser, was already in her office at Ryerson. She was listening to CHFI and didn’t pay much attention when she heard a traffic update about a pedestrian accident near Midland and St. Clair. She wasn’t surprised. Everyone speeds on those streets.

Six people are hit by a car each day in Toronto. We know how to fix it, so why don't we?
The intersection of St. Clair and Jeanette, where Miehm was struck and killed by a driver who ran a red light
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Around 8:30 a.m., her daughter Alexandra, who lived with her and Jack, called to say that the end of their street was blocked off for a police investigation. She was worried—she recognized Jack’s baseball cap on the ground. In the middle of their conversation, Maria received a call from a number she didn’t recognize. It was a police officer, who had found her contact info on Jack’s cellphone. Maria interrupted to say she knew Jack had been in an accident, and she wanted to know what hospital he was in, because she had to get there immediately. The officer apologized—he would usually do this in person, he said—but Jack had succumbed to his injuries.

Maria went numb. Her Ryerson colleagues overheard her intense call and congregated around her desk, putting their hands on her shoulders and holding her. Two of her colleagues drove her home, where she waited for Jack’s two children to arrive before they went together to Scarborough General. At the hospital, Maria insisted on seeing Jack’s body. He was severely banged up, but not so bad that she didn’t recognize him. “I talked to Jack,” she told me. “I held his hand, I looked at his injuries, and it really wasn’t as bad as I thought—most of the trauma was on his back.”

Maria recounted her story over coffee in the food court of the Atrium on Bay. “It was like my heart was ripped right out of my chest, it was just…” she said. “That day was like every day. He got up with me, we had our coffee. I gave him a kiss goodbye, told him I loved him. We were going to have a barbecue that night. We never had a fight in the six years I knew him. So I feel okay on that part. I didn’t leave upset with him, or say terrible things.”

After the hospital, she visited the intersection where Jack had died and saw that someone—she guessed a neighbour—had already placed flowers against a pole. The police met her at her house and gave her a brown paper bag containing Jack’s belongings: his wallet, shoes and hat. The investigation would be led by Lester Lalla, a detective constable with the gruff, all-business manner of a cop who’s seen more than his share of gruesome collisions. His first priority would be to identify the driver. A collision reconstruction team had already taken coordinates and evidence at the scene. They noted where Jack’s body had landed and looked for debris—the most notable find was a piece of the broken side mirror left on the pavement. Lalla’s plan was to flush the driver out by releasing a photo of the Dodge Caravan and a 15-second clip from the neighbour’s video. The clip was shown on the evening news and online, with pleas for anyone who knew anything to come forward.

The strategy paid off. Two days after the collision, a 56-year-old day labourer named Punitharajah Singarajah turned himself in. He was arrested and his van was seized and held as evidence. Fibres from Jack’s clothing were sent for forensic analysis, to confirm that they matched samples taken from Singarajah’s van. He was charged with dangerous operation of a motor vehicle causing death, criminal negligence causing death and leaving the scene of an accident causing death, though none of the allegations have been proven in court. He was released on $10,000 bail the following Monday. As part of his conditions, Singarajah was barred from operating or sitting in the driver’s seat of a motor vehicle of any kind. A preliminary inquiry is scheduled to begin in January 2020.

Nearly a year after Jack’s death, Maria is still getting used to the slow pace of the criminal case. The police encouraged her to call her insurance provider to report that Jack had been in a traffic accident, as she’d be entitled to the claim. She’s also hired counsel to help her launch a civil case against Singarajah. Her lawyer will argue that Maria should be compensated for every year that Jack could have lived—for big losses (his future income, whatever plans they had for vacations and retirement) and for small (he cut the grass, he shovelled their snow).

“I’m trying to be a good citizen, but it’s very hard when somebody kills someone you love,” Maria says. “If I’m driving and I hit a squirrel with my car, I can feel it. Jack was a six-foot-two, 240-pound man—not a squirrel.” The question that nags her the most: why didn’t Singarajah stay at the scene?

When police report a pedestrian death, they don’t identify the victim, citing provincial privacy rules. The names of a handful of pedestrian victims from 2018 were made public last year because the media learned them from the victims’ friends and relatives. For the most part, people killed on our streets remain anonymous. When you can’t put a name or a face to victims, they’re just numbers. An annual tally of 41 deaths is a statistic, not a crisis.

Six people are hit by a car each day in Toronto. We know how to fix it, so why don't we?

Kasia Briegmann-Samson, Yu Li and David Stark were so frustrated with the anonymity of traffic victims that they launched the group Friends and Families for Safe Streets three years ago. Each had recently lost a partner or close friend. They now host monthly drop-in support meetings, usually in a donated space, for people to share stories about a death or an injury, talk about ways to cope with grief, and exchange tips on how to navigate civil actions and insurance claims.

The group is also campaigning hard for changes to the sentencing of drivers who kill or injure people—the harsher the better. Their reasons are deeply personal. For Stark, it’s how the courts punished the driver who killed his wife. On November 6, 2014, Erica Stark, the 42-year-old mother of their three preteen boys, was standing on Midland near Eglinton, waiting to cross the street while walking a guide dog she was helping to train. A driver named Elizabeth Taylor lost control of her SUV and mounted the sidewalk, knocking down a traffic light pole and striking Erica, who flew several metres—leaving one Blundstone in the middle of the street. A passerby stopped to help but there was too much blood to perform CPR. Erica died moments later. Taylor stayed at the scene (her car was totalled), appeared to be shocked, and was taken to the hospital to be examined. She offered no explanation for what happened. At her trial, she received a $1,000 fine (the maximum is $2,000), a six-month partial licence suspension and six demerit points for careless driving. Shocked at how easy Taylor got off, and fuelled by the grief he shared with his three now-motherless children, Stark resolved to act as a spokesperson for victims and their families. He was also behind a successful campaign to rename a parkette near their Riverdale home after Erica.

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Groups like his have pinned their hopes on Bill 62, tabled last year by Jessica Bell, the rookie NDP MPP for University-Rosedale. The bill proposes a set of fairly mild but potentially consequential changes to the Highway Traffic Act to punish reckless driving resulting in death or injury, including mandatory community service, driver education and licence suspension. Astonishingly, motorists who kill or seriously injure a pedestrian aren’t required to attend sentencings or hear victim-impact statements—this bill would force them to. Bell tabled the bill in November, when daylight saving time ends and the shorter days bring more traffic fatalities.

This isn’t a new bill. It’s been kicking around in various forms for years. Cheri DiNovo, a former NDP MPP, first introduced it as Bill 158 in 2017. That bill died when the legislature was prorogued, then again when the Ford government stormed into power. It’s likely Bell’s bill will also go nowhere, much like the city’s petitions to allow automated speed enforcement that has real consequences for speeding drivers.

I have a three-year-old with the self-control of a wildling let loose in a forest. I grip his hand too hard on sidewalks, even on quiet streets, terrified he’ll get away for even a second—he’s always running toward puddles or cats or dump trucks (a current obsession). We’ve had a handful of close encounters. Once, this past spring, we were hopscotching from puddle to puddle at a four-way stop when a car rolled through and missed us by a metre. I slapped the door and startled the driver, who I could plainly see had been texting. The authors of Bill 62 should add a clause: anyone convicted of killing a pedestrian while texting is prohibited from owning or using a mobile device forever.

Sifting through death stats, survivor accounts and medical journals detailing trauma to the body, I felt the urge to relocate my family deep into rural Ontario, where the most clear and present danger is stepping in a cow patty.

As of this writing, 19 pedestrians have died in Toronto this year. One of them, a 39-year-old woman who had just dropped her kids off at school, was killed while waiting to cross at the intersection of Dundas and Regent Park Boulevard. The driver, Joshua Smoke, lost control of his black SUV and mounted the curb. He got out of his totalled car, fled on foot and was later arrested. A few weeks later, two women in their 60s were jaywalking across Finch near Jane when they were hit by a white Buick sedan. One woman survived with serious injuries, the other died in hospital. After they’d been taken away by ambulance, the street remained littered with their broken grocery bags, their cellphones and their summer sandals.

At this rate, we’re well on our way to another 41 dead.


This story originally appeared in the September 2019 issue of Toronto Life magazine. To subscribe, for just $29.95 a year, click here.

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