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Toronto needs to plan around pedestrians, not drivers: Expert

Swedish safety strategist says North American laws focus on driving efficiency

A traffic roundabout dominates Sergel’s Square in Stockholm, Sweden. Swedish traffic strategist Matts-Ake Belin says roundabouts reduce the likelihood of fatal collisions and are an example of Vision Zero engineering at work.

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A traffic roundabout dominates Sergel’s Square in Stockholm, Sweden. Swedish traffic strategist Matts-Ake Belin says roundabouts reduce the likelihood of fatal collisions and are an example of Vision Zero engineering at work.

The architect of one of the most effective road safety strategies in the world says it’s time for Toronto to “revolutionize” its approach to safe streets.

“The thing that strikes me the most about coming to Toronto or other cities in North America is that the whole focus is on car drivers,” said Matts-Ake Belin, a traffic safety strategist with the Swedish Transportation Administration and the president of the country’s Vision Zero initiative. “If you want to promote cycling and walking – which are good for the environment and good for health outcomes – then one of the barriers to doing that is safety.

“You have to change the planning paradigm from car drivers to a focus on these unprotected road users.”

Doing so involves acknowledging that fatal crashes aren’t the result bad drivers or inattentive pedestrians. Instead, Belin said, flawed design is to blame.

It’s precisely the approach Swedish politicians took in the late 1990s, with the goal of eliminating road deaths altogether. The revamped policy – dubbed Vision Zero – has reduced the number of fatal collisions in the country by more than 50 per cent.

Vision Zero is “an ethical imperative,” Belin said, which states: “It can never be acceptable or ethical for people to be killed or seriously injured when they move through the transport system.”

While most North American politicians will tell you road fatalities are unacceptable, Belin points outs their policies often say the opposite.

He describes “traditional” road safety planning as a balancing act between the efficiency of the road – how quickly cars move on it – and the risks to human health. Under the model, a certain number of injuries or fatalities are necessary before an uncontrolled intersection gets a stop sign, more deaths mean the stop sign becomes a traffic light and so on.

In other words, our road design tolerates a certain amount of death and injury at the cost of moving motor vehicles quickly through cities.

You can see this philosophy at work in Toronto. Even when discussing the new road safety plan with Metro in January, public works chair Coun. Jaye Robinson stressed the need “to balance competing priorities on roads.”

Belin says Vision Zero does away with that balancing act, and places the emphasis squarely on human life. It also focuses on preventing fatalities, rather than preventing collisions.

“The problem we try to solve with Vision Zero is not the problem of crashes, per se,” Belin said. “We try to solve the problem that people are getting killed or seriously injured on our roads.”

As an example, Belin contrasts a roundabout with a stoplight. The latter is the most common way of reducing collisions at an intersection, but the crashes it creates tend to be more severe (imagine a left-turning driver hit by a car rushing through an amber light).

Roundabouts, on the other hand, reduce the speed of vehicles moving through an intersection. According to Belin, the design may actually increase the number of collisions, but those that do occur are less likely to result in fatalities.

“The difference between a traffic light and a roundabout is the difference between life and death,” he said.

In Vision Zero, enforcement or education take a backseat to good design.

“You’ll find 90 per cent of all crashes are due to human error. It’s a mantra, and it’s been there since the introduction of the car to society,” Belin said. “So when society tried to develop strategies to prevent crashes, they put the focus on individual road users. They put the responsibility on the individual.”

Again, this philosophy is apparent in the rhetoric of Toronto’s politicians and planners. Although the city’s new road safety plan includes engineering and design solutions, Mayor John Tory focused on the behaviours of road users during its unveiling.

“Human behaviour is the most vital component that has to be changed,” the mayor said Monday.

Belin disagrees. Vision Zero, he says, views road deaths not as a consequence of poor behaviour on behalf of road users but as a design flaw that can be fixed.

“The ultimate responsibility for road safety is on the designer in Vision Zero,” he said.

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