I fully subscribe to (and share) the motivations of Toronto's Medical Officer of Health Dr. James McKeown, whose report on how to reduce danger to pedestrians was presented to Toronto City Council yesterday.
I lost a sister to a 'pedestrian-motor vehicle' collision many years ago - actually, before I was even born. Still, I know first-hand the damage it can cause to families.
But I'm afraid Dr. McKeown's conclusions are based on some false premises, and on an incomplete understanding of how traffic works.
His suggestions smack of “we have to do something”, as opposed to “let's do something that might actually help.”
First, he wants to make Toronto more 'pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly', and uses the city of Vancouver as an example.
Well, there are more differences between Vancouver and Toronto than the fact that their NHL team played a grand total of five more games this year than ours did.
There's the vastly more temperate (albeit rainy) climate on the Left Coast. Not much point in borrowing policies from there if they can't be utilized here for up to one third of the year. You don't - you never will - see many bicycles at the bottom of the Avenue Road hill heading up to St. Clair in February.
Also, during former Toronto mayor David Miller's even more ill-advised attempt to ban right turns on red lights, it came to light that Vancouver has the worst pedestrian safety record of any major Canadian city.
Not a paragon to which we should aspire, I wouldn't think.
Dr. McKeown's most controversial (but far from only) recommendation is for a blanket reduction of the speed limit from 50 km/h to 40 on non-residential streets and 30 on residential streets.
This ignores several facts.
First, research shows that on all types of road - freeways, arterial roads, urban streets - traffic drives roughly at the speed the road was designed to handle.
Give drivers a big wide four-lane road with excellent sight lines, no bumps or intersections, and they're gonna go about 60 - 70 km/h, no matter what you do.
I was once asked by a local politician how the municipality could slow down traffic on a major Regional Road near where we both live, which had just been rebuilt and modernized.
“Dig a one foot wide, one foot deep ditch across it every hundred metres or so,'' I replied.
“We can't do that!” she said.
“Then you don't really want to slow traffic down,” I countered, “because that's the only way you're going to do it.”
The police have nowhere near the resources needed to enforce the (mostly artificially low) speed limits we already have. What chance would they have of knocking 10 or 20 km off those speeds?
Dr. McKeown notes that there are approximately 1,000 cyclists and 2,000 pedestrians involved in collisions with motor vehicles annually in Toronto; about 30 of these incidents result in fatalities.
How many of those could we expect to eliminate if we implemented his proposals?
Hard to say.
Data from elsewhere suggest that impaired walking is as proportionally dangerous as impaired driving. If that is the case in Toronto, then some 20 to 30 percent of those fatalities aren't caused by motor vehicles going too fast per se, but by the fact that the pedestrians are impaired.
I don't know if impaired cycling is an issue or not.
Dr. McKeown maintains that a pedestrian is eight times more likely to die if hit by a car going 50 km/h than 30 km/h.
That seems a bit high to me, given that 30 km/h is a pretty big hit.
But the real point is, the operator of the motor vehicle in such a collision has approximately zero chance of being killed.
Want pedestrians and cyclists to be safer?
The obvious answer: Get them into cars.
The sole reason I'm not totally bummed out that my second daughter has moved to Whitehorse in The Yukon is that she will no longer be riding her bicycle in downtown Toronto traffic.
So, what might help make our streets safer for pedestrians and cyclists?
Among the most interesting traffic safety initiatives in recent years - maybe ever - has taken place in a few cities and towns in Holland, subsequently extended to other cities in Europe. A traffic engineer named Hans Monderman removed ALL traffic restrictions - no speed limits, no lane markings, no stop lights, no crosswalks, no sidewalks, no signs, no nothing.
The theory was if nobody (or no signage, whatever) TELLS people what is or is not safe, the responsibility devolves onto all road users, and they figure it out for themselves.
Pedestrian/cyclist-vehicle interactions have dropped significantly in all cases, and traffic throughput actually increased as well.
Can I see this happening here?
Not really. We're not brave enough to try anything this intelligent.
But it does indicate - to me, if not to Dr. McKeown - that in the world of traffic safety, all is not as it often appears to be.