The number of pedestrian deaths in Toronto has leapt 15 per cent over the past five years – and yet public attention and political reaction continue to fall short. Oliver Moore and Michael Pereira analyzed five years of data and found an increasingly urgent public safety matter
Every four hours, a pedestrian is hit in Toronto. On average this year, someone dies every 10 days.
A total of 163 pedestrians, more people than can fit in a streetcar, have been killed since 2011. It’s a toll that surpasses fatal shootings, yet generates a small fraction of the community concern and political reaction.
“If you compare it to how much attention is paid each year to the number of people who are killed by homicide, or a number of other things, it has received less attention than it should, especially given the magnitude of the number,” Toronto Mayor John Tory said.
And it’s getting worse. Over the past five years, the number of deaths has leaped 15 per cent compared with the previous five years. With an aging population, that upward trend threatens to continue, making pedestrian safety one of the key public issues facing the city of Toronto.
“These are deaths we can prevent,” chief planner Jennifer Keesmaat said. “A critical part of modern city-building is about keeping people safe.”
The Globe and Mail analyzed more than five years of Toronto Police Service data on pedestrian fatalities to determine where and how people die in the city. Trends quickly emerged: The victims are disproportionately over 65 and hit by a larger vehicle. They are usually walking across an arterial road, often in the suburbs and typically at a spot without a traffic signal or crosswalk.
Toronto is in the final stages of preparing a road-safety plan, with a greater emphasis on vulnerable road users. But protecting pedestrians will require a fundamental shift in mindset, one that challenges the car culture and the unspoken attitude that traffic fatalities are an unavoidable reality of urban living.
Other cities are already leading the way. In addition to educating pedestrians – who are usually responsible for a small minority of the fatal collisions – they are creating transportation systems that protect everyone, so that the inevitable mistakes or recklessness do not cause a death. This usually includes stricter enforcement of driving laws, re-engineered roads and often a broad-based reduction in speeds, which the evidence shows is a key way to protect pedestrians.
Toronto, by contrast, is expected to focus its efforts at spots that have proved dangerous, a reactive approach that effectively means that pedestrians have to die or be seriously injured before drivers will be made to slow down.
“You have to raise the needs of the unprotected road users,” said Matts-Ake Belin, a traffic safety strategist with the Swedish Transport Administration and one of the key architects of that country’s much-emulated Vision Zero road-safety program, which has helped slash pedestrian deaths by nearly one-third in Stockholm since 2000.
“You have to put them higher up and their needs higher up in the discussion about how you want to plan your urban environment.”
How we die
Pedestrian deaths fluctuate wildly. Four people were killed by trucks in Toronto in just 29 days in 2013, then there was not another such fatality for nearly a year. Earlier this year, the city had six pedestrian fatalities in six weeks, starting in late March, but has not had one since.
These blips illustrate the importance of longer-term data. And the pattern is troubling.
Even though the overall number of collisions related to pedestrians has been dropping in Toronto, the proportion in which people are being killed has climbed alarmingly. The past three years averaged a pedestrian death for every 52 collisions, compared with one death for every 88 collisions in the previous eight years.
|Year||Percentage of fatalities|
Percentage of pedestrian collisions resulting in fatality (2005-2015)
Measured as a share of the population, Toronto has done considerably better on pedestrian deaths the past two years than Vancouver, and is a bit ahead of New York. But Toronto’s trend is going the wrong way. Both of those cities are improving, while Toronto is getting worse.
The story shown by The Globe’s data analysis is the story of Steve Dinopoulos’s death.
The stretch of Danforth Road near Linden Avenue, where Steve Dinopoulos died after trying to cross the road in 2015. Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail
A retired chef, Mr. Dinopoulos was a man who loved gardening and was determined to stay in his home after his wife died. The letter carrier on his postal route recalls how the octogenarian would shovel a path for her and neighbours describe him as a man who moved slowly but determinedly.
“I used to see him walking all the time,” remembers Neil Cooper, who says he lived across the street for 20 years. “I would offer him a ride and he never would. He was very independent.”
In February of 2015, the 86-year-old Mr. Dinopoulos needed to go the pharmacy. He took the bus and, coming back, got off on Danforth Road by Linden Avenue, not far from his Scarborough house. Then he did what his family said he had done for 30 years: walked across the four-lane road. It was a fateful decision. A minivan hit him in the final lane and he died at the scene.
As a senior, Mr. Dinopoulos is part of a vastly overrepresented group of victims. Although people 65 and older make up only 14 per cent of the city’s population, they were half of the pedestrian fatalities.
He was hit by a Dodge Caravan, which is tied with the Toyota Corolla as the models of vehicle responsible for the most pedestrian deaths, accounting for about 10 per cent of the fatalities since 2011.
Minivans are also part of a class of vehicles that accounts for more fatalities than any other. Thirty-seven per cent of dead pedestrians were hit by a minivan, pickup truck, van or sport utility vehicle – a figure that is even higher among seniors. A prevailing theory on why people get killed by these types of vehicles is that they are heavier and sit higher, meaning that they tend to hit a person’s torso rather than the legs.
Pedestrian fatalities by type of vehicle (2011-2016)
The sort of road where Mr. Dinopoulos was struck also figures prominently in the crash statistics. More than one-third of fatalities happened on or near four-lane roads, with roads from five to eight lanes wide accounting collectively for another 45 per cent.
And where he was walking is also telling of a broader reality: The largest group of pedestrians – 43 per cent – was killed while crossing at spots where there are neither traffic signals nor crosswalks.
|Crossing at intersection||51|
|Crossing in crosswalk||17|
|Not on road||24|
Victim action at the time of the incident (2011-2016)
The speed limit where Mr. Dinopoulos was hit is 60 kilometres an hour and locals say many people drive faster. A teenage girl died there about a decade ago, prompting the city to put a traffic signal at a nearby intersection. And then a preteen boy was severely injured at Danforth and Linden a few years ago, leading to renewed discussion about the safety of the spot.
“The entire community who takes transit and lives on the other side of Danforth Road crosses unsafely, including myself when I lived at [my parents’ home],” said Mr. Dinopoulos’s daughter, Karen Giallelis. The family is pursuing a civil suit against the driver involved and she answered questions through a lawyer.
“We would like to see a crosswalk in memory of my dad and others who have gotten gravely hurt or died crossing.”
The city says the spot does not come anywhere close to meeting its criteria for installing another crossing, though. Which leaves pedestrians with a choice: Make a detour of about three minutes – or at least double that for a senior – to cross at a light, or take their chances with the vehicle traffic.
“Those who designed that system, they designed according to the perfect human, that always does the right thing and always follows all the regulations and everything,” said Mr. Belin, the Swedish traffic safety expert.
“But we say that, no no, this is the wrong design. You have to accommodate how people are using that system and start to accommodate for that. So the traffic engineers [are] there for the normal road user, not the perfect fantastic human that you never see in traffic. They are there for us.”
Afraid to walk
Designing the city around its residents’ needs will become increasingly important as the population ages.
“It’s high time we make seniors’ safety a top priority,” said Councillor Jaye Robinson, chair of the public works and infrastructure committee that will debate the city’s forthcoming road-safety plan later this month.
“The senior population is only going to grow over the next couple of decades, and we need to be prepared for that.”
In 2011, 14 per cent of Toronto’s population was over 65. That is expected to climb to 17 per cent by 2021 and 24 per cent by 2041. This aging population will gradually lose its ability to drive. They will walk more slowly. Some will have diminished sight and hearing. There will be an increase in the number with dementia. All of which will raise their chance of being hit by a vehicle.
Seniors advocates and some walkability champions argue that a city designed to keep these elderly residents safe has the corollary benefit of keeping younger people safe as well. And a city that does not take into account the vulnerability of seniors puts them in danger.
Seniors are at much more risk if hit by a vehicle. Compared with a young person, they are three to four times more likely to die when struck at speeds ranging from 30 to 50 kilometres an hour. And fear of what might happen while crossing the road can keep them at home, hurting their health in other ways.
“There’s a positive correlation between social isolation and physical and psychological decline, and I would also throw cognitive decline in there as well,” said Maureen Coyle, a member of the steering committee for Walk Toronto, an advocacy group, and a doctoral candidate at the University of Toronto who did her master’s thesis on physical-activity engagement among people 50 and older.
“I regularly encounter elders who are in their homes from about mid-October to the beginning of November until minimum the end of March, and that is very concerning to me. That does have a health impact.”
At the Sts. Peter and Paul Residence in Scarborough, administration manager Marta Smalley sees first-hand people who are afraid to go outside. Residents at the home have long liked to make outings to a nearby strip mall. But before a traffic signal was put in, they had to negotiate two crosswalks to get there, one of them across busy Milner Avenue, and it wore on many of them.
“They’re frail to begin with, so they’re watching every step they take,” Ms. Smalley said. “They’re scared to cross, but now that the [new traffic] light is there, it’s better, I think.”
The traffic signal was installed after long-time resident William Dukhu, 88, was killed in a crosswalk in September of 2013.
Mohan Dukhu said his father had been returning to the home after a trip to a mall a few kilometres away. It was a spot he liked to go in his mobility scooter, a place where he could catch up with friends. On this occasion, he had been making plans with them to come over for his upcoming birthday, five days later.
On the way back to his residence, William Dukhu was hit by a truck crossing Milner, a few metres from his front door .
The city was unclear what role, if any, Mr. Dukhu’s death played in the signal being installed. But small changes such as that can have a big impact on the quality of life of older residents in Toronto, which is now embarking on Phase 2 of its seniors’ strategy, with an explicit emphasis on transportation safety.
“I hope that, at the end of the day, our recommendations are the same as [the road-safety plan],” said Councillor Josh Matlow, the city’s Seniors’ Advocate. “But ours might go a little further. And then we will be expecting [the] transportation [department] to respond, and we’ll be expecting council to act.”
Toronto’s coming road-safety plan is expected to bring renewed attention to protecting pedestrians, cyclists and seniors. It will include a host of tactics, from better enforcement in school zones and seniors areas to the designation of “pedestrian priority zones” that need special attention and the re-engineering of particularly dangerous bits of roadway.
“Safe ways to move in the city is really the next critical challenge for us to solve,” said Ms. Keesmaat, the chief planner.
Police figures provided by the city show that drivers are thought to be at fault in 50 per cent to 60 per cent of pedestrian fatalities and the people walking are at fault in 25 per cent to 30 per cent. The remaining cases are unclear.
Relative responsibility is important. Because while cities trying to tackle pedestrian fatalities usually employ a wide range of tactics, at the root of these is often a philosophical view of whether pedestrians or drivers are primarily responsible for safe walking.
Exhibiting the first approach are the cities where pedestrians are urged to carry flashlights and wave flags as they cross the road, shifting the responsibility for safety to them. An example of the second attitude is Peatónito, the resident of Mexico City who takes to the street garbed as a lucha libre wrestler, standing up to cars that threaten pedestrians.
Toronto seems to be leaning a bit closer to the second model, albeit without the costume. Mayor Tory said he will personally voice public service announcements to urge people – “drivers mostly” – to adapt their behaviour to keep pedestrians safe.
“I’ve always said that, you know, people are going to continue to drive cars and trucks and buses and other vehicles, but they’re huge multi-tonne steel vehicles and the onus has to be on the people in those vehicles, as opposed to the pedestrians,” he said. “Because you’re protected by two or 10 or 15 tonnes of steel. The pedestrian isn’t.”
But Toronto is not expected to emulate cities that have trimmed speed limits across the board, even though it is known to reduce the risk of death.
“Because vehicle standards for pedestrian impact are designed to produce safety benefits for pedestrians when vehicles are travelling in the range of 40 km/h or less, speed reduction and traffic-calming measures combined with better-designed car fronts represents the best possible combination for pedestrian injury and fatality reductions,” argues a 2013 report from the Canadian Council of Motor Transport Administrators.
Although statistics vary, the research shows that being hit at 30 km/h is roughly like falling from the second storey of a building. Most people will survive. Being hit at 65 km/h is more like falling from the fifth floor. Most people will die. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, when someone is hit at 70 km/h – a common speed on some Toronto arterial roads – they have a statistically zero chance of surviving.
“Speed is absolutely, absolutely the most fundamental thing. You know, speed of turns, speed moving through. Everything,” said Rob Viola, director of safety, policy and research in the department of transportation in New York, which lowered its default speed limit to 40 km/h.
“It’s the survivability of the crash, and then it’s also the avoidability of the crash too.”
Speed is a complicated thing, though. People tend to drive more according to the cues of the road – its width, the length of the block, whether there are trees or parked cars, along with many other factors – than the posted speed limit. Simply changing the signs would be unlikely to have the same effect as re-engineering the road, a costly process.
Toronto has already tightened its guidelines around lane widths and curve radii. As streets are gradually rebuilt, these will have the effect of slowing traffic to more pedestrian-friendly speeds. Across-the-board speed-limit changes are more controversial, though. Many at Toronto’s city hall dismissed the idea in 2012 when the chief medical officer proposed slowing cars.
Mayor Tory favours a case-by-case approach, adjusting limits as necessary in identified danger spots, a view that is expected to be reflected in the road-safety plan. It’s not unreasonable, he argued, for people to be able to drive faster on some roads.
“In the case of some of these major arterial roads, you know, where there are frequent places to cross and so on, the answer’s possibly yes, that there’s a justification for a higher speed limit,” Mr. Tory said. “Use lower speed limits as appropriate in places where it’s obvious that you need to do so, and where it is inappropriate for cars to be going that fast, given the pedestrian traffic and the history of what’s happened.”
Looking both ways: Solutions from other jurisdictions
After a particularly bad year for pedestrian deaths in 2013, Mayor Bill de Blasio launched New York’s 63-point Vision Zero program, with the goal of eliminating traffic fatalities within 10 years.
There has been fundamental change – the city dropped the default speed limit to 25 miles per hour from 30 – and real funding: $115-million (U.S.) in capital investments on safer roads are planned for this year.
The city found that “dangerous driver choices” were associated with 70 per cent of pedestrian fatalities. In response, police ramped up their efforts. Citations for failing to yield and for texting jumped more than 200 per cent in 2015 and speeding violations climbed 75 per cent. The 140 speed cameras set up near schools generated more than one million violations.
By the end of 2015, there were 700 traffic signals that start a bit earlier for pedestrians than the ones for motorist to give walkers a head start, and there are immediate plans to have them at as many of the most dangerous intersections as possible and at school crosswalks on the worst roadways.
Other changes have included engineering fixes to improve safety at many of the most dangerous spots, education and media campaigns and a new right-of-way law that makes it easier to prosecute bad drivers. In 2015, one-quarter of motorists who killed a pedestrian or cyclist were arrested under this law.
The 137 pedestrian deaths in 2015 – a slim improvement on 2014 and much better than 2013 – made it the safest year on record. It was the second straight year of declines. Officials caution, though, that the path of improvement will not be smooth.
“Getting all the way to actual zero will get increasingly more difficult,” said Rob Viola, a senior project manager in the NYC department of transportation who developed pedestrian-safety plans for each borough. “Having it as your standard and as your goal is very helpful for framing your decisions, everything from how you talk about things to how design works.”
The long-term trend for pedestrian fatalities in Vancouver is enviable.
Since the late 1990s, the number of pedestrian deaths has fallen dramatically, even as the city’s population has jumped. After more than a decade of annual pedestrian-death tolls in the 20s and 30s, Vancouver has not topped 20 since 2007 and dipped briefly below 10, in 2010.
A few key developments have probably contributed to the drop.
In 1997, the city of Vancouver made a fundamental decision on a transportation hierarchy that explicitly put pedestrians, as the most vulnerable road users, at the top. In 2012, a pedestrian-safety plan produced priorities including improved traffic signals, left-turn bays, better lighting and increased road-crossing times. Almost all of the improvements in that plan have been met, with the final one to be finished this year.
City staff planned to bring to council this summer a series of “quick-start” actions, and sort out longer-term policies by the fall. The road-safety plan will rely on the better use of data to prioritize danger areas, including a focus on senior-heavy neighbourhoods, engineering improvements, stricter enforcement of bad driving and public education.
“At the end of the day, it’s looking at, okay, how can we still achieve mobility, with sort of minor [speed] reductions but with, you know, greatly improved safety,” said Steve Brown, Vancouver’s manager of traffic and data management, who is leading the city’s plan to wipe out road fatalities.
The city also hopes to work with the province to increase the number of red-light cameras, bring back photo radar and change the default speed limit.
Road-safety programs invariably show that some groups or parts of a city have been bearing a disproportionate amount of the danger.
This showed up acutely in San Francisco, prompting the city to use a strong equity lens when pursuing its version of Vision Zero, which was adopted in 2014 with a 10-year target for eliminating traffic fatalities.
The city’s research showed that streets deemed part of the “high-injury network” were about 50 per cent more likely to be in one of the city’s historically disadvantaged areas. Also heavily affected were seniors, children and people with disabilities.
San Francisco has committed to improving about 20 kilometres of this high-injury network each year, prioritizing projects that improve safety for these groups.
These engineering changes have been accompanied by police enforcement of the five traffic violations that most often result in deaths and serious injuries: running red lights, running stop signs, violating the pedestrian right-of- way, failing to yield while turning and speeding. Citations for these five offences were up close to 50 per cent in 2015 and prosecution rates for vehicular manslaughter inched up. At the same time, education related to driver behaviour has been rolled out, with an emphasis on training for professional drivers and city employees.
The city is planning to spend $70-million (U.S.) over the next two years on engineering, enforcement and education projects, according to a spokesman for the city’s transportation agency, part of a long-term plan pegged to cost $240-million.
“To get to zero, we need to do more than using the engineering, enforcement and education solutions we have in our toolkit,” warns a progress report issued last month. “We all need to change our behaviour and create a culture that prioritizes life and traffic safety.”
The roots of Vision Zero were planted in Sweden, where the program was enshrined in law by parliament in 1997.
The idea of aiming for no road fatalities sounds deceptively simple, but one of the key architects notes that the strongest resistance came from people who believe that there is “a price you have to pay” for mobility.
“The transport sector, I think, is quite influenced by this cost-benefit philosophy,” said Matts-Ake Belin, a traffic safety strategist with the Swedish Transport Administration.
“And a cost-benefit philosophy, even if [it] is not said explicitly, they really mean that there is a kind of optimum of fatalities and serious injuries … and to do that, they make a kind of calculation between the cost and the benefit. And when these things are in balance then, well, you’ve got your result.”
Vision Zero takes a starkly different approach, arguing that road deaths are preventable. The philosophy is based on the recognition that people make mistakes and need a system that allows for that, so that these mistakes aren’t fatal. This includes everything from re-engineered roads to lower speed limits.
Stockholm, which has set 2040 as the target for becoming a city that prioritizes walking, cycling and public transit, has cut road deaths since 2000 by nearly half and pedestrian deaths by 31 per cent. The city of about one million people had only six pedestrian fatalities in 2013.
Sweden’s success at making roads safer has led many others to import elements of their ideas. But Mr. Belin said he is concerned with how much of the original idea may be getting lost along the way.
“I’m afraid that some jurisdictions, maybe some cities, they take this word Vision Zero, but they don’t really start to implement things based on this philosophy,” he said. “They’re using the word, and then there is the risk for business as usual.”