What the pedestrian safety conversation overlooked

By John Lorinc - Published on June 17, 2016
Car turns corner and goes over crosswalk.
Pedestrian safety has been top of mind this week.

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This week was marked by a great deal of discussion over pedestrian safety on the streets of Ontario. Here’s a few things that conversation missed.

Missing the Mark?

The pedestrian safety campaigns launched by Toronto and then the Ontario government this week were tragically amplified by the freakish death of a woman who was working in a tent stall near the Rogers Centre when a Mercedes-Benz SUV jumped the curb and plowed into her.

Although police haven’t released details, it is worth noting that this kind of vehicle, like a growing number of other new higher-end passenger vehicles, features a large digital screen in the middle of the dash board.

While there’s nothing new about dashboards packed with digital panels and small screens, there’s clearly a move in the car industry towards larger full-colour displays equipped with Wifi capability. The 2016 Jeep Cherokee, for example, has a screen that takes up much of the upper panel. Hyundai’s Sante Fe XL has an 8-inch colour touch screen for navigation (“so you can maintain your focus on the road”).

Pushing the digital envelope even further, the new Chevy Volt – which got a big plug from prime minister Justin Trudeau and premier Kathleen Wynne at a splashy press conference earlier this month – has a vivid touch-screen display that displays text messages as well as other apps, and also has 4G wifi on-board.

In a world where we seem to want to be connected at almost every waking moment, it’s little surprise that the automakers are hustling to respond to consumer demand to provide this kind of connectivity in cars.

As the Huffington Post reported recently, J.D. Power found that buyers are increasingly seeking these kinds of features and may actually rule out vehicles that don’t have them.     

Yet there is virtually no discussion about the role these built-in screens play in serious or fatal accidents. Transport Canada, which oversees vehicle safety standards, currently has no regulations prohibiting or restricting such equipment.

The agency, a spokesperson assured me, “is concerned about driver distraction and advises drivers to avoid using any device that may take their attention away from driving. This would include in-vehicle touch screen information systems. Transport Canada encourages vehicle and electronics manufacturers to design devices that are compatible with safe driving and to follow all current safety guidelines and best practices.”

Federal encouragement has evidently had little impact on the automakers.

Nor do these devices feature in public safety campaigns, which invariably focus on texting while driving or the use of a cell phone without a hands-free connection (an infraction now subject to a $490 fine and three demerit points).

On its Distracted Driving information page, for example, the Ontario government focuses mainly on handheld devices and GPS. “Using your phone to talk, text, check maps or choose a playlist while you’re behind the wheel all count as distracted driving – and they put you and others at risk.” A just-released Ontario public service announcement depicts a young driver glancing down at the buzzing of a smart phone on the passenger seat just long enough to be brutally t-boned.

These are incredibly important messages, but no one should assume the large, colour-filled digital screens that are becoming standard-issue in new cars will be any less distracting than phones. After all, there’s a growing body of neurological evidence to suggest the glow of these screens, among other factors, has an addictive effect on users. But we have no clue about how drivers are affected by them.  

The point is that if our governments truly want to promote pedestrian and cyclist safety, they simply can’t ignore the potential risks associated with the use of the visually captivating screens that have elbowed aside dull consoles of dials and vents. That means Transport Canada has to press the automakers into engaging in a discussion about screen safety, and it also requires local and provincial governments to augment their public service messaging with warnings about dash-board distraction. Anything less is just missing the mark.

Get the Statistics Right

When officials released the City of Toronto’s proposed five-year, $68 million pedestrian safety plan last week, pundits quickly pounced on one detail – the proposed target to cut pedestrian and cyclist fatalities by 20 per cent over the next decade.

Pedestrian and cycling advocates condemned the municipality for setting the bar way too low, especially in comparison to other cities that have signed on to the Vision Zero movement, which originated in Sweden and now has adherents all over the world. Mayor John Tory quickly signalled that he wants council to aim for a 100 per cent reduction.

Recent high-profile pedestrian fatalities, and the running tally for the year, offer anecdotal evidence that the streets are becoming less safe.

Indeed, some of the city’s pedestrian and cyclist injury and fatality stats, released in an appendix to the safety plan, paint a troubling picture that seems to reinforce those impressions. Cycling injuries, deaths of seniors and fatalities related to distracted or aggressive driving all seem to be trending upwards over time.

Strangely, the city’s analysis fails to account for an important detail, which is population growth. In the past decade, Toronto’s population has grown by about 300,000 people, or more than 10 per cent. So the more relevant metrics, which didn’t figure in the city’s analysis, have to do with the incidence of injury or death – i.e., what is the likelihood of getting involved in a terrible accident.

If we do the math, the picture looks somewhat different. For cyclists, the ratio of those killed or seriously injured in traffic collisions has dropped slightly over a decade, from 2.1 per 100,000 in 2006 to 1.7 in 2015.

As for pedestrians killed or seriously injured (KSI), the data shows that things have actually improved, falling from 9.6 per 100,000 in 2006 to 5.3 in 2015. That drop, incidentally, represents a 45 per cent reduction in the incidence over the past decade and happened without an aggressive pedestrian safety plan. 

The point here is not to argue against measures such as better bike lanes, reduced speed limits and improved intersection design, nor to minimize the tragedy of each death. Indeed, the city’s $68 million allocation is modest relative to the amount spent each year on outlays such as road and sidewalk maintenance ($242 million for 2015) or the $1 billion that will be spent on the Gardiner expressway over the next decade.  

But if politicians want to use KSI figures as a management tool, they should focus on per capita metrics that actually show if we’re going forwards or backwards, and the raw accident tallies simply don’t do that. 

Urban affairs journalist John Lorinc is a senior editor at Spacing Magazine.

Read more: When will Toronto stop blaming pedestrians for traffic fatalities?

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