Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Culture: Pedestrian Deaths Unsurprising

TORONTO, ONTARIO - The plight of pedestrians in the city of Toronto is finally receiving some attention as ten pedestrians have been killed in the last eight days. While I'd rather be a pedestrian in Toronto than anywhere else I've been lately, the spate of deaths does not surprise me, as driving patterns in Toronto are atrocious.

One thing that definitely made me feel at home after returning to this city after five weeks away was how nice it was to walk around here. Unlike some places (this is mostly you, suburban Arizona and El Dorado County, California), there are reasonably-sized sidewalks on all the streets that I want to walk down, pedestrian request buttons at crosswalks are generally well-maintained and responsive, and streets are well-lighted at night even on residential streets. It may not be environmentally sensitive, but the street lights are a really nice feature in the winter months when any evening errand will be in the dark. Never mind crime rates, which I rarely think about anyway, the well-lighted, clearly well-designed sidewalks made me feel safe as a pedestrian.

The feeling of safety was tempered somewhat, though, by how terribly people drive in this area. It's far from the worst in the world; I'd rather deal with drivers in Toronto than Boston, Massachusetts (where I admit there is a method to the driving madness but it's a rude, uncivilized method that I disdain), New York city, or my personal least preferred location, Hartford, Connecticut (where if there is any method to their sheer madness, I never figured it out). When I was growing up, people used to disdain California drivers, but now I'm not sure one can tell the difference in driving style between any California city and those in the Pacific Northwest, and that style, flawed as it may be, is much safer than how people drive in Toronto.

I have issues with how people make turns here. It is rare to see people check all relevant directions for pedestrians or bicycles before making a turn. If there's no vehicle in their way, they just go, often without fully stopping at a stop sign or red light. People also turn into adjacent lanes to those occupied by other cars, not taking into account that the other vehicles may be changing lanes (because people aren't great at using their turn signals here). Most of the accidents I have seen have come from some combination of lane changes and aggressive turning behavior.

The other major problem is that people exceed the speed limit here too often. It's not uncommon to see vehicles going 70 km/h on streets signed for 50 km/h, or people going 50 km/h on streets signed for 30 km/h. (They don't obey the limit on the high end, either; I once had to pull over on highway 69 because I was going the speed limit, probably 90 km/h at that location, and had a line of fifteen vehicles behind me that wanted to exceed the speed limit.) That problem would be somewhat ameliorated if appropriate trailing distances were observed, but people don't do that, either. The remainder of the accidents I have seen have resulted from people following too closely and not stopping when the leading vehicle did. I once "caused an accident" myself when I was using a crosswalk when I had a walk signal and a van intending to make a right turn (I believe he was even signaling!) through the crosswalk stopped to allow me to proceed and was rear-ended.

So, having seen the results of this borderline-uncivilized driving behavior first-hand on a regular basis, it doesn't surprise me that pedestrians are being killed. Drivers that don't look properly when they turn, speed, and follow too closely are likely to kill people. As 8-80 Cities (who advocate safe urban features for those under age 8 and over age 80--what a concept!) activist Gil Penalosa argues, there is a need to enforce speed limits through traffic calming and enforcement and generally raise awareness, since pedestrians hit at higher speed are more likely to die.

I'm not against any of Penalosa's suggestions, but to me there's a broader problem with driving in Ontario. I have been told that people used to at least observe speed limits before the Harris government in Ontario slashed traffic enforcement after taking office in 1995, and then it became a free-for-all on the highways. Things have only partially recovered in the years since Harris stepped down as premier in 2002. That's what needs to change.

It's time to start enforcing traffic laws again, strictly. It needs to happen anyway, and if it does, then there will be fewer pedestrian deaths. That's the real root problem, and it's time to address it, if you pardon the phraseology, head-on.

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