Constable Clinton Stibbe is having a rough summer. The Toronto police officer got in hot water last month when he suggested that impatient pedestrians dashing across busy intersections were to blame for slowing traffic. He was in hot water again last week when he suggested that “cyclist error” might have been responsible for the death of a 71-year-old man whose bike ran into a parked van.
Constable Stibbe promptly apologized. Police were still investigating the events that led to the bike crash, he said.
But the incidents point to a troubling tendency to blame the victim in road accidents. As the number of pedestrians and cyclists killed or injured on the roads piles up, and Canadian cities struggle with how to bring the toll down, some are pinning responsibility on the distracted, reckless behaviour of those who are being hurt.
It’s easy to see how that idea has taken hold. Just about anyone who has spent time behind the wheel has had to jam on the brakes when a pedestrian sprints to get through a gap in moving traffic or a cyclist in black clothes and no bike light bombs out of the dark, taking his life in his hands. Sometimes, it has to be said, pedestrians or cyclists are indeed to blame for putting themselves in danger.
But that is not the root of the problem. Scolding pedestrians and cyclists about their wayward habits won’t do much to bring down the toll on the roads. People are programmed to take the shortest route between two points. In a hurry-up world, it’s unrealistic to think that we can curb the impatience of those who are bustling around urban streets on the way to work or play.
The answer instead is to redesign our roads, and the rules that govern them, to acknowledge the fact that the roads are not just the preserve of motorists but shared among everyone who uses them.
Take a look at an old photograph of, say, Dublin a century ago and you can’t help but notice that the main streets are filled with all manner of traffic: people, bikes, horses, carriages. The motorcar changed everything. Engineers designed new roads to get vehicles from one place to another with maximum dispatch. Pedestrians were an afterthought and cyclists were barely considered.
A recent investigation by The Globe and Mail’s Oliver Moore found that many pedestrian deaths and injuries happen on broad avenues in car-dependent suburbs where vehicles move fast and crossing lights are far apart. Many of the victims are not impetuous young people dodging across the street but older people who are not as fast on their feet. Seniors accounted for half of pedestrian fatalities, though they make up just 14 per cent of the population.
Making the roads safer, Mr. Moore wrote, 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.”
One country that has made that shift is Sweden. Its much-copied Vision Zero approach is “based on the recognition that people make mistakes and need a system that allows for that, so that these mistakes aren’t fatal.” That means more pedestrian crossings, lower speed limits in some places and better-designed intersections that require cars to slow if they turn.
Toronto Mayor John Tory’s road-safety plan, coming before City Council this week, would lower speed limits in many places, improve safety at dangerous intersections and create school-safety zones. It would set aside an extra $40-million over five years for the safety measures
Consider what engineers have accomplished where Toronto’s Hoskin Avenue meets Queen’s Park Crescent, right near Ontario’s legislative building. Cars coming south used to whip around the curve, which was designed like a highway off-ramp. University students hurrying to class scrambled to cross in front of them. Now, a built-out corner makes cars slow or stop. The crossings are better marked and signalled.
That is a much more effective approach than tut-tutting about impatient pedestrians. However careless, a pedestrian or cyclist is always the more vulnerable party in an encounter with a hurtling ton of metal. Rather than try to modify the behaviour of the victims, authorities need to focus on modifying the roads and the rules to make venturing out on city streets safer for all of those who use them.