Thursday, January 23, 2014

More Torontonians die this way than by homicide. So where’s the outrage?

Here’s a statistic: Last year, 63 people died in traffic accidents in Toronto. That’s more than the number of people who died by homicide.

Here are a few more numbers for context: In 2005, when we lived through the “Summer of the Gun,” 52 people were killed in gun murders. During the SARS crisis of 2002–2003, a total of 44 Canadians died from the respiratory infection. In the old days, before we erected a suicide barrier, about nine people per year fell or jumped to their deaths from the Bloor Viaduct. You may remember the public concern—sometimes bordering on panic—about those events, as well as the various responses: the massive overhaul in policing methods and social-service delivery that followed the gun deaths; the entire city outfitted in masks and hand-sanitizing stations during and after SARS; the erection of the $5.5-million “luminous veil” on the bridge over the Don.

In a recent post on Torontoist, David Hains charts how, in 2013, we saw the deaths of 40 pedestrians, 12 motor-vehicle passengers or drivers, seven motorcyclists, and four cyclists on Toronto’s roads. Where is the panic? Where is the outrage? Where is the public resolve that this is a situation we must address?

But other than Hains’s piece and an op-ed by Benjamin Gillies in the Toronto Star, I haven’t heard a peep about the death toll.

Perhaps we panic more about deaths from things that seem insensible, or useless—criminals and diseases (mental and physical) that appear to kill for no reason that we can fathom. But when it comes to traffic, we appreciate the social purpose. People need to get around, to work and play and live their lives. Cars and trucks and buses make that task easier. In many cases, they make it possible, period. So, perhaps we think traffic fatalities are the price we pay for the social good of transportation. They’re sad, but inevitable.

Mayor Rob Ford has certainly hinted at that opinion. He once claimed that cyclists who were struck by vehicles were basically asking for it, because they are “swimming with the sharks” by traveling on roads he thinks are meant for cars and trucks. When Toronto’s chief medical officer of health, David McKeown, suggested in 2012 that speed limits across the city should be lowered to 30 kilometres per hour on residential streets and 40 kilometres per hour on standard arterial roads because his research indicated this would save lives, Ford and his brother deemed the good doc’s $294,000 salary “an embarrassment” and suggested he should be fired.

But while some accidents may be unavoidable, we don’t need to accept such a high number of fatalities. There are things we can do as a city—starting with reviving McKeown’s suggestion—to save lives on our streets. That’s especially true in the case of the 40 pedestrian deaths, where we can see that many were entirely preventable through better road design. Most pedestrian deaths happened in intersections, and in the suburbs, many victims were hit by cars making left turns across wide roads. Advocates suggest longer crossing times for pedestrian signals, more widespread “zebra” stripes painted on crosswalks, and changing the curb structure to make drivers turn slower and “more deliberately,” as Hains puts it. It’s a lot of little things that add up to more awareness among drivers that they are sharing the road with vulnerable fellow travellers.

As the percentage of people relying on public transit and walking continues to go up dramatically in inner suburban areas designed for cars, we need to think carefully about how to make those streets safer for those who use them.

Can we do it? Absolutely, we can. The question is whether we will. This is a city that will remodel entire bridges, implement widespread health practices, and spend millions of extra dollars on policing individual neighbourhoods to save dozens of lives if and when the public is concerned and afraid and angry enough to demand it. More people died in traffic than in homicides last year. Are we ready to do something about it?
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