Thursday, June 16, 2016

Toronto's plan to deal with an epidemic of pedestrian fatalities

Toronto is suffering through something of an epidemic of pedestrian deaths at the moment.
A total of 163 pedestrians have been killed on the streets of Toronto since 2011, more than have died in the much better-publicized shootings during that period. That's about one every 10 days on average, although a pedestrian is hit non-lethally by a vehicle about every four hours. And, worryingly, the numbers are on the increase: the last five years has seen 15% more deaths than the previous five. The percentage of collisions resulting in death has also see a spike recently, especially over the last three years.
Yes, Toronto has more pedestrians and more vehicles than it used to have, but an analysis of the details reveals a concerning trend that is probably only going to get worse as the population continues to age: the victims are disproportionately over 65 and hit by a larger vehicle (mainly cars, minivans and SUVs), typically somewhere in the suburbs, and while crossing a major arterial road at a spot without traffic lights or crosswalks. People 65 and older make up 14% of the city’s population, but they represent half of its pedestrian fatalities. Seniors are three to four times more likely to die when struck at speeds of 30-50 km/h than younger people. Drivers are thought to be at fault in 50-60% of pedestrian fatalities, and the pedestrians themselves are at fault in 25-30% of cases (the remaining cases are unclear).
Under some pressure, and following a lacklustre and poorly-received earlier promise to cut pedestrian deaths by just 20% (suggesting that 80% of the current carnage is considered acceptable), Mayor John Tory has recently vowed to pursue a goal of zero pedestrian deaths. While Toronto's pedestrian deaths as a share of its population is actually slightly better than that of cities like Vancouver and New York, for example, the situation in both of those cities is improving, while Toronto seems to be headed in the wrong direction. So, clearly Toronto can learn from the experiences of other cities, and clearly it needs to do so soon.
So, what exactly can be done?
The best results seem to come from reducing speed limits and traffic-calming measures. Research shows that being hit at 30 km/h is roughly like falling from the second storey of a building (it's going to hurt, but most people will survive), whereas being hit at 65 km/h is more like falling from the fifth floor (most people will die).
In 2013, after a particularly bad year for pedestrian fatalities, New York instituted its 63-point Vision Zero program, with the goal of eliminating traffic fatalities within 10 years. It dropped the default speed limit to 25 mph (about 40 km/h) from 30 mph, and put some real funding (US$115-million) into capital investments in safer roads. It also ramped up its traffic police efforts: citations for failing to yield and for texting while driving jumped more than 200% in 2015, speeding violations climbed 75%, and the 140 speed cameras set up near schools have generated more than one million violations. In addition, it has tweaked 700 traffic signals so the pedestrian signals start a little earlier than the ones for motorists (to give walkers a head start on crossing), and there are plans to extend this scheme to many of the most dangerous intersections, as well as at school crosswalks on the worst roadways. Education and media campaigns have been waged, and a new right-of-way law has made it easier to prosecute bad drivers (in 2015, a quarter of motorists who killed a pedestrian or cyclist were arrested under this law). And all these changes are paying concrete dividends: New York's 137 pedestrian deaths in 2015 was a long way from zero, granted, but it was still its safest year on record (a slim improvement on 2014, and much better than 2013).
New York's Vision Zero (and San Francisco's similar program) is based in large part of the experience in Sweden which, as so often, provides the gold standard for socially-beneficial, people-centred improvements. Sweden enshrined law aimed at zero pedestrian fatalities way back in 1997, and it has seen enviable results: the capital city of Stockholm, for example, has cut road deaths since 2000 by nearly half, and pedestrian deaths by about a third (the city of about one million people had only six pedestrian fatalities in 2013).
Toronto's plan, however, remains vague - an additional investment of $40-million over five years on safety-related improvements has been mentioned, and there has been talk of lowering speed limits from 50 km/h to 40 km/h in some locations, and from 60 km/h to 50 km/h in others - and many traffic activists remain unconvinced that Toronto is taking the issue seriously even now.

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