The compelling case for forcing Toronto’s drivers to slow down
Toronto’s roads are the most perilous in the country for pedestrians. The solution is simple, smart and anathema to an already gridlocked city: make drivers slow down
On November 6, 2014, Erica Stark, a 42-year-old mother of three young boys, drove her Kia Rondo to her Scarborough dealership to have its winter tires put on. She brought along Zella, a black Lab she was training to be a guide dog for the hearing impaired. While the tires were being changed, she took Zella for a walk westward along Gilder Drive, a quiet street lined with low-rise apartment buildings. As they reached the first set of lights, at Midland Avenue, a minivan veered onto the sidewalk, hitting a light standard, colliding with Stark and sending her flying several metres. A nearby construction worker rushed to help, cut off the purse straps tangled around her neck and held her as she died.
Stark was the 24th of 31 pedestrians to be fatally struck by a vehicle in Toronto in 2014. As of May 1 this year, there have already been 15—a rate that, should it continue, would result in a yearly total of 45, and possibly more, since the numbers tend to spike in fall, when days are shorter.
It’s a price other cities aren’t paying. On a per capita basis, if you regularly walk or bike to work in Toronto, you’re twice as likely as Montrealers and three times more likely than Vancouverites to be hit by a vehicle. The culprit: Toronto’s love affair with the car—a phenomenon that has become abundantly clear to me as a parent.
My kids’ school, Davisville Public, sits mid-block on Millwood, between Mount Pleasant and Yonge. Without a street corner, stop sign or designated crossing, kids walking to school thread their way through drop-off traffic at their peril. On his first day of school, my four-year-old son surveyed the tangle of cars and asked, “Where are we supposed to cross?” I had no answer. I called Transportation Services. To warrant a crosswalk, we needed 200 pedestrian crossings over eight hours. They sent a staff member to stand on the curb and count. He tallied 180. Crosswalk denied.
I requested a crossing guard. This being the domain of the TPS, a police officer visited and counted the number of unaccompanied children: one. When I told him that children no longer walk alone to school precisely because it’s unsafe, he scoffed and said that our situation was “paradise” compared to some other Toronto schools. Crossing guard denied.
The principal proposed a Kiss ’n’ Ride program in which parents stand on the curb in front of the school and escort children out of cars and into the school— facilitating traffic flow but creating another incentive to drive to school (in the end, not enough parents volunteered). In a self-perpetuating cycle, parents who opt for the “safer” choice of driving kids to school make walking an ever riskier proposition. My son is reminded daily that pedestrians are second-class citizens, roads are to be crossed fast and wherever possible, and Elmer the Safety Elephant is out of touch with reality.
Determined to find a solution, I made a deputation before then-chief Blair and the Police Services Board, requesting that they re-examine the policy for allocating crossing guards. After 10 months, the board came back with six proposals. Among them was that a committee be created to review denied applications for crossing guards. So far, no such committee exists. It’s been nearly three years since I made my first inquiries, and there’s been no change at Davisville Public. At this rate, I’ll be pleased if my grandkids have the pleasure of safe crossing in front of their school.
Or maybe tragedy will accelerate the process. In an unexpected moment of candour, a police officer confessed to me that nothing is likely to change on Millwood until a child is killed. The officer cited the death of Georgia Walsh, the 7-year-old girl who was hit and killed while crossing an intersection in Leaside in July 2014. Residents had been clamouring for a solution for years. A month after Walsh was hit, the city implemented a right-turn-on-red restriction at the corner where she died.
If there is one measure guaranteed to reduce pedestrian deaths, it’s slowing cars down. When a pedestrian is struck at a speed of 50 kilometres per hour, the fatality rate is 85 per cent; when the speed is lowered to 40, it’s 25 per cent. In separate reports in 2012, Ontario’s chief coroner and Toronto’s chief medical officer recommended that the city-wide limit drop to 40 kilometres per hour, and on residential streets to 30. Denzil Minnan-Wong, then-chair of the public works committee, suggested that the CMO find another line of work.
The trouble is that most drivers ignore the posted limits, no matter what they are. What needs to change is the penalty system. In Ontario, demerit points are only issued when a driver exceeds the limit by 15 kilometres per hour or more, and the financial penalty is hardly prohibitive: the fine for going 25 over the limit in Toronto is $93.75. In Switzerland, drivers caught speeding by 25 kilometres per hour over the limit are charged 20 days’ worth of income. And driving 50 kilometres per hour over the limit in a Swiss city can land you in jail for a year or more. It might sound draconian, but it works. The country has one of the lowest road fatality rates in the world, at just four per 100,000 people.
Toronto has taken some steps to make the roads safer for pedestrians. Since 2000, the city has painted “zebra markings” at more than 1,000 intersections, installed 77 red-light cameras and lengthened traffic light intervals at some of the most hazardous junctions. But none of these measures has had a lasting effect on the number of fatalities.
In March, councillor Jaye Robinson, the public works chair, introduced a motion recommending that Toronto consider a comprehensive road safety plan. Among her proposals was Vision Zero, a Swedish program that lays out a suite of measures including wider sidewalks, better barriers, improved oversight of vehicle and road maintenance, and, yes, lower speed limits. Sweden adopted Vision Zero in 1997 and has seen a steady decrease in traffic fatalities, even as its traffic volume rises—a by-product of a growing economy. Sweden’s roads are now the world’s safest.
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio launched Vision Zero in January 2014. So far, he has made 25 miles (40 kilometres) per hour the default limit, installed 120 school-speed-zone cameras and 400 speed bumps, and increased the size of sidewalks and pedestrian islands. New York Police Commissioner Bill Bratton vowed, “We will be just as aggressive in preventing a deadly crash on the street as we are in preventing a deadly shooting.” That’s the kind of chutzpah Toronto needs. In the last two years, there have been 71 pedestrian deaths in Toronto and 49 fatal shootings. Ask yourself: which do we hear more about?