When will Toronto stop blaming pedestrians for traffic fatalities?

By Jamie Bradburn - Published on June 21, 2016
For the past 15 years, pedestrian fatalities resulting from collisions in Toronto have ranged from 18 to 50 annually.

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“If the people were as careful about themselves as the drivers of vehicles are there would be practically no accidents … Accidents are caused by not looking, and the time has arrived when pedestrians must be considered a part of the city’s traffic.”

While it sounds like something that could have been said in Toronto last week, that quote dates from almost 100 years ago, when Thomas Phelan, president of the Ontario Motor League (which evolved into the Canadian Automobile Association) addressed civic leaders about the increasing number of street accidents. It’s a familiar refrain in Toronto and the GTA: blaming pedestrians for injuries or death whenever they’re hit by a motor vehicle.

For the past 15 years, pedestrian fatalities resulting from collisions within the city of Toronto have ranged from 18 to 50 annually. Transportation experts and walking advocates agree that the city’s infrastructure was built to favour motor vehicles, and that officials have been slow to react to factors such as an aging population, impatience with gridlock and an increase in suburban pedestrians.

Here’s a sampling of how the battle has unfolded during the 21st century:

2001: While installing traffic safety infrastructure such as crosswalks and traffic signals, Toronto’s director of transportation systems, Les Kelman, also comments that “the hard reality is that pedestrians and motorists have to take responsibility for their own safety.” Rhona Swarbrick, chair of the Toronto Pedestrian Committee (a city council advisory group formed in 1998), says that our collective understanding of roads needs to shift, to prioritize the needs of pedestrians –  especially seniors and children – over drivers.

2002: Toronto adopts a pedestrian charter which promises to “ensure walking is a safe, comfortable, and convenient mode of urban travel.” Pedestrian fatalities rise from 32 the previous year to 50. Among the explanations the Toronto Star gives for the increase: inadequate enforcement of traffic laws, an increase in vehicles, red light runners and road rage, an aging population, and increase of immigrants unaccustomed to North American traffic rules. Police chief Julian Fantino orders tougher enforcement of traffic laws, including jaywalking.

2003: A police campaign urges pedestrians to “cross the road as if your life depends on it.” The penalty for jaywalking rises from $8.75 to $50, rolled out via month-long ticketing blitzes that dispense over 1,000 fines. Pedestrian activists believe the new penalty, which is accompanied by a $10 “victim surcharge,” reinforces old prejudices about walkers usually being at fault. In an interview with the Toronto Star, transportation services official Dan Egan points to a survey conducted several years earlier which suggested drivers were at fault in 60 per cent of collisions. The Star sends a reporter to use a crosswalk in Parkdale repeatedly over the course of an hour. During the 50 crossings made, 35 vehicles fail to yield.

2007: Mayor David Miller signs the International Charter for Walking during the Walk21 conference, becoming the 26th city globally to do so. The city’s manager of pedestrian and cycling infrastructure notes that councillors often fail to support substantive pedestrian safety policies as opposed to quick fixes such as ticket blitzes.

2008: The Toronto Walking Strategy is presented to council, promoting recommendations experts had been making for years, such as building complete streets (designing a streetscape which promotes better integration of pedestrians, cyclists and motor vehicles and enhancing crosswalks and signals via methods such as countdown timers and painting zebra stripes on roads.  

2010: January is a deadly month, as seven pedestrians are killed in Toronto, along with a further seven throughout the rest of GTA. At the peak of the carnage, 10 of those victims die within nine days. The Toronto Star complains about the silence from Miller and then-Police Chief Bill Blair, noting there was a greater public outcry during the “summer of the gun” in 2005. The paper fills its pages with articles on pedestrianism, including what constitutes jaywalking. Columnist Christopher Hume blasts complacent attitudes: “The deaths are an indictment of a society so cravenly dependent on the automobile that fatalities such as these are tacitly accepted as part of the cost of living here,” he writes. Hume writes that the latest police anti-jaywalking blitz is a useless manifestation of the police attitude that “pedestrians are naughty children who must be protected from themselves.”

2011: Rob Ford’s administration amps up the “war on the car” rhetoric favoured by the mayor’s supporters and publications including the Toronto Sun. The Toronto Pedestrian Committee is dissolved in a cost-cutting exercise, along with other council advisory groups. Deputy mayor Doug Holyday suggests such organizations demanded too much staff time and were prone to personal agendas. Then-public works and infrastructure committee chair Denzil Minnan-Wong develops a habit of raising last-minute motions to stall or kill Miller-era projects such as the Fort York pedestrian bridge. He demands a re-evaluation of the pedestrian scramble at Yonge and Dundas, feeling it snarls vehicular traffic despite city staff maintaining it benefits the large volume of pedestrians using the intersection.

2014: Seven-year-old Georgia Walsh, daughter of the president of the federal Conservative Party, dies after being struck by a minivan in Toronto’s Leaside neighbourhood. Her death sparks increased interest in pedestrian safety in residential areas and inspires the “slow down, kids at play” lawn sign campaign. Several councillors revisit calls made a decade earlier to lower the speed on all residential roads to 30 km/h. The reduction is implemented within several neighbourhoods in the Toronto and East York community council districts in 2015.

2016: Provincial laws forcing drivers to yield the entire road to pedestrians using crosswalks come into effect, 13 years after the Toronto Police Services Board recommended it. Growing public concern about fatalities prompts a June 13 press conference, during which Mayor John Tory announces $68.1 million in funding for road safety initiatives. But old attitudes die hard: the next day, police spokesperson Clint Stibbe tells Metro News that “the car is not the one committing the offences, it’s the pedestrians.”

Jamie Bradburn is a Toronto-based writer/researcher specializing in historical and contemporary civic matters.

Read more: What the pedestrian safety conversation overlooked

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