The stats and the stories: Taking a tour through Toronto's deadly streets
How can Toronto curb traffic-related fatalities?
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A 79-year-old man is hit and killed while crossing Sheppard Avenue East mid-block near a bus stop. The nearest crosswalk is more than 500 metres away.
A seven-year-old girl dies after being run over by a turning truck near her home in Leaside. The driver avoids jail time, and, now, “slow down, kids at play” signs dot lawns across neighbourhood.
A 35-year-old beloved teacher and father of two is killed by a hit-and-run driver while cycling in downtown Toronto. His grieving father regrets buying him the bike he was riding.
These are just a few stories of Toronto’s deadly streets. There are countless others, but many are next to impossible to tell. Too often all we learn about the victims is an age and an intersection. Unlike other crimes, police seldom identify those killed on the road.
What little we do know comes from the few families who’ve stepped forward to call for change. You’ll meet some of them during Metro’s five-part series.
Meanwhile, the statistics behind our deadly streets are all too public. The city keeps meticulous records of collisions, deaths and injuries, and the portrait painted by the data is shocking.
A pedestrian is hit by someone driving a motor vehicle every 3 ½ hours in Toronto, and a cyclist is hit every eight hours, according to city data. Based on 2015 numbers, vulnerable road users – those on two feet or two wheels – are being killed on our roads at a rate approaching one a week.
Our own history shows us road fatalities are a problem that can be solved. Since 1990, the number of drivers and passengers killed in Toronto has declined significantly: from a high of 56 in 1992 to a low of 15 in 2011.
Experts say that’s largely the result of design: we’ve built safer cars, divided our highways, installed medians and refined signal timing at intersections.
Vulnerable road users, however, have not benefitted from those changes. In fact, the proportion of road deaths in Toronto involving cyclists and pedestrians has risen nearly 20 per cent since 1990. Pedestrian deaths have been trending upward steadily since 2012.
“Frankly, the numbers highlight the contemptible inaction by governments in view of the available safety measures to save lives,” said Albert Koehl, a lawyer and strident road safety advocate in Toronto.
And, while safety campaigns encourage pedestrians to wear bright clothing or, in one absurd case, carry flashlights, numbers show the majority of people killed are innocent victims. According to a 2015 Toronto Public Health report, the majority – 67 per cent – of pedestrian fatalities can be attributed to driver error.
Despite the statistics, Toronto has been reluctant to change lanes on road safety. Most requests for new crosswalks in the city are denied, separated bike lanes are few and far between and council balked at a 2012 request by the chief medical health officer to reduce speed limits citywide.
Just last week, a debate about Toronto’s new cycling plan prompted some councillors to decry “the war on the car” and raise the spectre of “psycho cyclists.”
Toronto is trying to address the problem.
Between 2014 and 2015, the city upgraded some 300 pedestrian crossovers and crosswalks and added controlled crossings to 55 locations. But, the interventions aren’t working: last year was the second-worst year for pedestrian and cyclist deaths in the past decade, marking 43 deaths. Sixteen have died so far this year — all pedestrians.
The tide may be turning. Coun. Jaye Robinson, chair of the public works committee, is leading the charge on a new road safety plan.
“We’re going to shine a spotlight on the issue like never before,” Robinson told Metro.
However, the plan — with a first draft due Monday — will still have to pass council, where members seem unwilling to implement strategies to save lives if they inconvenience drivers. It was less than four years ago that council voted to remove the protected bike lane on Jarvis Street to save car commuters two minutes.
It’s that culture, where the risks to human life and health are weighed against the mobility of motor vehicles, that must change, advocates say. “Convenience should never trump safety” is the oft-repeated mantra of Cycle Toronto director Jared Kolb.
Fortunately, Toronto doesn’t have to tackle the issue in a vacuum. Other cities and countries have taken measures to curb traffic fatalities, and a consensus is emerging around best practices.
In Sweden, traffic fatalities have been cut in half since the late 1990s through a mix of lower speed limits and radically redesigned roadways.
Closer to home, New York’s ambitious new road safety measures – which include making it a criminal offence for drivers not to yield to pedestrians – have reduced fatalities to levels not seen since the start of the 20th century.
Those jurisdictions, and others, have laid down the roadmap for the future of our streets. Toronto doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel – it just has to change gears.
Are you concerned about Toronto’s deadly streets? Click here to contact your councillor and tell them you want a road safety plan that puts pedestrians first and makes our roads safer for everyone.