Why traffic rules and road design is a public health issue

  • National Newswatch

Canadians are killing each other on our streets, even in broad daylight. The killers are usually known, but rarely prosecuted. Moreover, the killing could easily be prevented. Who are these people? The victims are people walking and the culprits are people driving. Ordinary, everyday people, like us. More than 300 pedestrians are killed by motorists in Canada each year. In Toronto alone, 163 pedestrians have been killed since 2011. But it doesn't have to be this way. Most collisions between pedestrians and vehicles are, one could argue, “by design” – policy design, that is. First, let's look at who's at fault in most pedestrian-vehicle collisions. According to the Chief Coroner of Ontario, 35 percent of pedestrian deaths were clearly caused by motorist traffic violations (e.g., failure to yield, jumping the curb); thirty-three percent of pedestrian deaths could not be determined; and, in 32 percent of cases there might have been a combination of pedestrians disregarding traffic rules (e.g., crossing against the light) and drivers not paying enough attention. The bottom line is most pedestrian deaths are preventable.  And evidence shows that the types of pedestrians struck by vehicles are not just young daredevils or children darting into the road – common misconceptions. Rather, 35 per cent of pedestrians struck were seniors, even though they represent only 13 per cent of the population. Only three per cent of fatalities involved children. Most pedestrian victims were just trying to cross the road at an intersection. Second, consider the increasing size of vehicles in pedestrian fatalities. Cars are getting heavier and taller. The market share of light-trucks has increased dramatically since 1980. According to Neil Arason, author of No Accident, light trucks increase the likelihood of pedestrian and cyclist fatalities in case of collisions by at least 50 per cent compared to regular cars. In other words, our outdated rules meant to protect all those using the road have not yet caught up to the deadly reality of our new plus-sized vehicles. One simple solution is to lower speed limits, which we know drastically reduces the risk of pedestrian fatalities in a collision. Research shows significant reductions in pedestrian death by reducing and enforcing speed limits to 30 km per hour in city centres, urban residential areas and rural neighbourhoods with high levels of pedestrian activity. At 30 km per hour, the probability of a collision and the probability of fatal collisions are both very small. Increase the speed, and the risk for both collisions and resultant deaths increases dramatically. Recent data (2009-2013) from Toronto shows how pedestrian death tolls go up with the speed limit: ·         where the speed limit was 30 km per hour, no pedestrian was killed ·         where the speed limit was 40 km per hour, 12 pedestrians were killed ·         where the speed limit was 50 km per hour, 44 pedestrians were killed ·         where the speed limit was 60 km per hour, 77 pedestrians were killed. If we reduce speed limits from 50 to 30 kilometres per hour, we could reduce pedestrian deaths to one seventh of what they are today. Real-life experiments conducted in Europe also show that imposing low speed limits decreases the number of pedestrian injuries and fatalities. One frequent objection to lowering speed limits is that it may add to commuting times. But congestion and stand-still traffic contribute much more to commute times than speed limits. For example, the average speed of a commuting driver in the greater Toronto area is only 18.6 km per hour because of congestion and traffic jams. Traffic simulations suggest that a speed limit of 30 km per hour would increase commuting time by only five percent. Of course, reducing speed limits might not be enough if urban planning as a whole is not designed to put pedestrians first. Arason and others working on safe street design suggest strategies such as narrowing streets by building or enlarging sidewalks and traffic islands, which in turn discourages larger cars; banning the right-turn on red light, which deters motorists from driving through crosswalks while pedestrians are crossing the street. Urban planning that puts pedestrians first will also encourage walking. As more people walk, more motorists would get used to driving with pedestrians in mind. Our neighbourhood streets should be viewed as zones used by pedestrians, where the intrusion of dangerous machines can be tolerated, but should not be the rule. It's time we crafted pedestrian-centred planning in our neighborhoods. Michel Grignon is an expert advisor with EvidenceNetwork.ca and Associate Professor with the Departments of Economics and Health, Aging & Society at McMaster University, and Director of the Centre for Health Economics and Policy Analysis (CHEPA).