Special Report: Walkable Streets

Our Fast, Dangerous Streets are Killing Senior Citizens and Children

The people being killed on our streets are the most vulnerable people in our society. They need to be protected - from us.

By Ryan McGreal
Published November 22, 2013

We're all busy. I get it. We're all in a hurry. We've all got lots of things on our minds. We're frustrated, distracted, preoccupied. Heck, we're only human, to borrow an expression from a certain all-too-human big city mayor.

And I maintain, as I always have, that the most effective, sustainable way to reduce the number of people injured and killed in car crashes is to design our streets to be inherently safer than they are today.

And by safer I really mean slower. A little bit of high school physics helps to understand why vehicle speed is really the most important factor in street safety: when you increase speed linearly, the kinetic energy of a car does not increase linearly, it increases exponentially.

The formula looks like this:

Kinetic Energy = 1/2 * mass * velocity2

What this means is that when a vehicle's speed is doubled, its kinetic energy, i.e. the energy of its motion, is not doubled but quadrupled.

Let's plug in some real values to see what this means. My car is a Honda Civic sedan. According to the owner's manual its curb weight is 1,179 kg.

This is reflected in crash statistics. If a pedestrian is struck by a vehicle going 32 km/h, the pedestrian has a 5 percent chance of dying from the collision. At 48 km/h, the chance of dying rises to 45 percent, and at 64 km/h the chance of dying rises to 85 percent.

If you are driving at 30 km/h and hit someone, that person is almost guaranteed to survive. If you are driving at twice the speed, that person is almost guaranteed to die.

But it's not just kinetic energy that increases exponentially with speed. All that kinetic energy has to go somewhere when you hit the brakes, and stopping distance at various speeds reflects this.

Again, let's use my car as an example. Assuming warm, dry pavement:

So when you're going twice as fast, you are not only more likely to kill anyone you hit, but also you are more likely to hit someone in the first place.

Still in a hurry?

Higher Standard of Responsibility

It's easy to score outrage points by complaining about those arrogant, entitled pedestrians slouching passive-aggressively across the street in finger-raised defiance of the right of way, dammit.

But the pedestrians who are actually being injured and killed on our streets are disproportionately senior citizens like the 78-year-old woman who was struck this week at Gage and Maplewood, not the cliched smug hipsters of car-centric polemics.

But even if that were not the case, we must put things bluntly: when you are operating a vehicle that weighs thousands of kilograms and has a powerful engine that can accelerate it to deadly speeds, you are by a gigantic margin the deadliest thing on the street, and your responsibilities should be commensurate to your destructive capability.

In the same way that gun owners are held to a much higher standard of responsibility in the case of death or injury due to accident and misadventure, car drivers should be held to a higher standard of responsibility based on their sheer capacity to mangle and kill other people.

Strict Liability

In the early 1990s, The Netherlands adopted Article 185 of the Road Law, which states that in any collision between someone in a motor vehicle and someone not in a motor vehicle, the driver is assumed to be at fault unless they can prove that they were overpowered by circumstances beyond their control.

At first blush, this seems unfair to North American sensibilities. After all, pedestrians and cyclists also make mistakes, right? Shouldn't people be responsible for their own actions, even if those actions are fatal?

But step back a minute. Are we really prepared to accept the argument that someone deserves to die because they had a momentary lapse in judgment on the street? (This is a trick question: of course we're prepared to accept it. Indeed, some newspaper letter writers seem to take actual glee in it.)

In The Netherlands, they do not accept that argument. Rather, Dutch law is based on the principle that when you are operating what is by a huge margin the most dangerous thing on the road, you also have a commensurate share of responsibility to do so in a manner that does not jeopardize the safety of other, more vulnerable road users.

In other words, the law tries to counterbalance the inherent inequality between the person protected inside a vehicle and the unprotected person that vehicle can strike and kill.

Contrast North America, where the standard punishment for a driver who kills a pedestrian - even if the driver is found to be at fault - is a Failure to Yield conviction and a $500 fine. Even the more severe charge of Careless Driving carries a $2,000 fine, and is very hard to prove in court.

Frankly, if a driver kills a pedestrian who was crossing the street lawfully, that seems to be prima facie evidence that the driver was not being careful enough. Every single driver found to be at fault should by definition be charged with Careless Driving.

Right of Way

In 2011, France passed a law granting pedestrians the right of way by default - not just in crosswalks but anywhere they want to cross the street. When a pedestrian signals they want to cross the street, i.e. by hand signal or by stepping out, all drivers must yield and let the pedestrian cross.

Again, the principle is that the most dangerous, most protected road users need to be extra-vigilant to accommodate the least dangerous and most vulnerable road users.

Ward 4 Councillor Sam Merulla has called on the Ontario Government to pass a similar law here, protecting pedestrians by default and shifting the burden to drivers - people who are, after all, sitting comfortably in ergonomic chairs in climate controlled cabins listening to high fidelity stereos - to yield to pedestrians.

Currently, pedestrians have the right of way when crossing the street lawfully at a crosswalk but not elsewhere. This has created a general perception that drivers don't have to stop for pedestrians anywhere else - not to mention the self-serving cliche of reckless jaywalking pedestrians that does not reflect the actual statistics on who is being struck and where.

Even at uncontrolled intersections, where drivers and pedestrians have a shared responsibility to accommodate each other and drivers are required to yield to a pedestrian crossing the street, the practical effect of our unbalanced legal and physical road framework is that most drivers refuse to stop and pedestrians are left having to wait for a gap in traffic big enough to scamper across without making any drivers slow down (since most drivers won't do so).

The question is: should the law reflect the power imbalance between drivers and pedestrians, or should it mitigate that imbalance?

Design Reflects Values

This circles back to the question of how we should design our streets, which is ultimately the most important factor in how safe they are. Should the rules of street design seek to accommodate the speed and convenience of the most powerful, dangerous road users, or should they seek to accommodate and protect the safety of the least powerful, most vulnerable road users?

Every time a traffic engineer suggests restricting pedestrians to "protect" them from high speed traffic, the real goal is to protect the high speed traffic from having to slow down to accommodate pedestrians.

In contrast, the Ontario Coroner recommends a complete streets approach that makes room for all users - pedestrians, cyclists, transit users and drivers - and reduces vehicle speeds through both lower speed limits and street design.

People who identify primarily as drivers and take a narrow, self-interested view of the impacts of a complete streets approach may be inclined to resist it, recognizing rightly that the effect is to make traffic flow more slowly (indeed, that is the primary goal).

But I believe almost everyone has the capacity to decide whether to look at an issue narrowly or broadly. You may simply want to drive where you're going as quickly as possible, but there are other people in different stages of life who need to be able to walk safely.

The people being killed on our streets are not hipsters, slackers, smug liberals or whatever lame stereotype helps drivers to dehumanize them. Disproportionately, overwhelmingly, the people being killed on our streets are senior citizens and children.

You may have parents or grandparents or aunts and uncles who would like to be able to walk to visit friends, go to appointments, do errands, get exercise, or just take a break from isolation. You may have children or grandchildren or nephews and nieces who want to walk to school, to the park, to a playgroup or a parenting support group or a recreation centre or an errand or just to get outside and enjoy some fresh air.

Protect the Most Vulnerable

The people being killed on our streets are the most vulnerable people in our society. They need to be protected - from us. From our hurry, our distraction, our entitlement, our frustration, our preoccupation, our only-humanness.

In closing, I embed the following video not so much to encourage you to slow down and be careful when you're driving, although of course I hope you will do so. I embed it to encourage you to accept, embrace and support the changes to our laws and street design principles that will make our streets inherently safer than they are today.

Listen to the parents of three-year-old Allison Liao, who was recently killed while using a crosswalk with her grandmother in Jackson Heights. Imagine what horror they must be going through. Consider, finally, that Allison's death, like most pedestrian deaths, was preventable.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan writes a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. He also maintains a personal website and has been known to post passing thoughts on Twitter @RyanMcGreal. Recently, he took the plunge and finally joined Facebook.

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By mikeonthemountain (registered) | Posted November 22, 2013 at 11:36:14

Frankly, if a driver kills a pedestrian who was crossing the street lawfully, that seems to be prima facie evidence that the driver was not being careful enough. Every single driver found to be at fault should by definition be charged with Careless Driving.

Emphasis mine, but read that again. You've just taken another life, the most serious thing you can do. I submit such situation calls for charges of negligence causing death, if not manslaughter. These would be the charges if you were careless with a firearm and killed someone when it discharged.

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By Pxtl (registered) - website | Posted November 22, 2013 at 12:23:38 in reply to Comment 95069

It could be argued that the negligence was on the part of the government and not the driver for constructing the roadway/laws/vehicular standards in such a fashion that the driver's reasonable level of caution was not sufficient in avoiding hitting a lawfully-crossing pedestrian. Sadly, our legal system does not support the XOR operator (if X is not guilty therefore Y must be guilty or Z must be guilty because somebody was negligent).

Comment edited by Pxtl on 2013-11-22 12:24:05

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted November 22, 2013 at 12:50:10 in reply to Comment 95071

Indeed. Our legal system seems to shrug and allow a measure of mangled and killed pedestrians as simply an acceptable price to pay for the convenience of fast traffic flows.

Again, compare the alacrity and severity with which the legal system responds if someone is killed accidentally with a firearm. Kill someone unintentionally with a gun and you will be charged with criminal negligence. Kill someone unintentionally with a car and you will be fined $500.

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By durander (registered) | Posted November 22, 2013 at 13:21:41 in reply to Comment 95075

I see your point of view, but not exactly the same argument. I'm not sure how many people "unintentionally" kill someone with a gun, it's usually motivated. And I would argue that if it was something like a hunting accident, there may not always be charges. Not disagreeing with your overall goal here, I just don't think that comparison is valid.

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By fault (anonymous) | Posted November 23, 2013 at 05:57:22 in reply to Comment 95081

guns are a loaded topic. instead think about someone who's negligence killed someone while operating a piece of heavy machinery. or a power tool. or left dangerous materials around. or electrocuted someone. or fell a tree on a passerby.

imagine any other scenario where someone's direct negligence lead to someone else being killed. how would we react to that? how would the courts react to that?

if a manufacturer builds a product with a design flaw and someone dies, do we shrug it off and say that its part of living in a modern society? if a car driver is killed by a car what happens? modern automobiles are remarkably safe considering just how many people walk away from horrendous high speed high energy collisions. pedestrians and cyclists are afforded no such protection it seems.

why?

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted November 22, 2013 at 13:43:58 in reply to Comment 95081

I'm not sure how many people "unintentionally" kill someone with a gun, it's usually motivated.

I'm specifically referring to people who accidentally, unintentionally kill someone with a gun in the absence of any motivation.

In Canada there are distinct charges related to killing someone:

  • Murder

    • First Degree - deliberate, planned, premeditated

    • Second Degree - deliberate but not planned or premeditated

  • Manslaughter

    • Unlawful Act - unintentionally kill someone while committing a crime

    • Criminal Negligence - unintentionally kill someone while doing something a reasonable person would recognize could endanger a life

If you accidentally, unintentionally kill someone with a gun, you are very likely to be charged with criminal negligence manslaughter. If you accidentally, unintentionally kill someone with a car, even if you are found to be entirely at fault, you are very likely to be fined $500.

Comment edited by administrator Ryan on 2013-11-22 13:46:19

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By mikeonthemountain (registered) | Posted November 22, 2013 at 13:32:52 in reply to Comment 95081

Ok then let's try to do a "For Dummies" version of this illustration.

Yes and some road fatalities are genuine mistakes, others are a result of avoidable and culpable (morally anyway) negligence.

Just as a thought experiment : spinning out on black ice and hitting someone (tragic accident perhaps) versus mowing down someone crossing legally (culpable negligence).

Shooting your buddy hunting because he was camouflaged and you two were not communicating (tragic accident perhaps) versus waving your gun around and it discharges goes through somebody's window and kills someone's grandmother (every available law and public outrage will be thrown at you).

Courtesy and safe road design : priceless.

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By slodrive (registered) | Posted November 22, 2013 at 11:57:15

Great article/ insights, Ryan. Solid, empirical validation for traffic calming efforts.

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By What a stretch (anonymous) | Posted November 22, 2013 at 12:43:20

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By Ryan (registered) - website | Posted November 22, 2013 at 13:12:55 in reply to Comment 95073

Well, it didn't take long for the first troll - "What a stretch", AKA "Title", AKA "Downtown Commuter" AKA "Anon" - to weigh in with a downright sociopathic knee-jerk reaction.

Be thankful hamiltons only averaging 1 death per year.

According to Hamilton's 2010 Traffic Safety Report PDF, between 1991 and 2010 Hamilton averaged 6 pedestrian fatalities, 2 cycling fatalities, 257 pedestrian injuries and 149 cycling injuries per year.

Far from being average, Hamilton is the second most dangerous city in Ontario for pedestrians, and as the Ontario Coroner reminds us, most of these pedestrian fatalities are preventable.

Stop trying to slow king st.

But far be it for a safe street design that avoids needlessly killing the most vulnerable road users to impede your ability to drive as fast as you want.

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By The "Troll" (anonymous) | Posted November 22, 2013 at 14:11:20 in reply to Comment 95078

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By Title (anonymous) | Posted November 22, 2013 at 12:44:55

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By lemalas (registered) | Posted November 22, 2013 at 13:13:49 in reply to Comment 95074

A sensational title, sure, but trolls typically don't employ physics and reasonable analogies to make a compassion-based plea for safer roads.

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By Title (anonymous) | Posted November 22, 2013 at 14:09:33 in reply to Comment 95079

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By mikeonthemountain (registered) | Posted November 22, 2013 at 13:36:50 in reply to Comment 95079

Also the title is not sensational. It describes what is actually happening. Actual data and statistics back up this position. Disproportionately, the slower walkers (elderly) are getting mowed down. Having witnessed close calls myself, and having read the list of pedestrian fatalities over the last 10 years or so, the title is not an exaggeration.

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By Title spot on (anonymous) | Posted November 22, 2013 at 13:59:30 in reply to Comment 95084

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By fmurray (registered) | Posted November 22, 2013 at 23:58:40 in reply to Comment 95086

I guess as long as it isn't YOUR grandmother or child being killed, one to five deaths per year is no big deal. "Troll" isn't a descriptive title for people like you -- unfortunately I can't find a word that you wouldn't turn into some kind of badge of honour. "Inhuman" is the most descriptive, but somehow is too civilized.

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By mikeonthemountain (registered) | Posted November 22, 2013 at 14:28:21 in reply to Comment 95086

The headline does not say it's an epidemic, nor does it say that it's happening all the time. Just that it is happening. The body of the article then explains that when it happens, the victim is usually someone highly vulnerable.

Nothing sensational except your inferences.

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By kevlahan (registered) | Posted November 22, 2013 at 13:35:09

A very important point is that it is not a utopian goal to drastically reduce, or even eliminate, pedestrian and cyclist fatalities.

Paris, with an urban core population of 2.2 million (whose effective population grows enormously during the day as it is the regional work and entertainment centre for 10 million people) had precisely zero cyclist deaths in 2011! And Paris has 23,000 rental bicycles available with a subscription base of 224,000 users. The absolute number of motorist deaths is actually lower than in Hamilton, despite (or because of) the dense traffic.

http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/...

As has been pointed out before, increasing the numbers of pedestrians and cyclists doesn't just cut the relative risk for each pedestrian or cyclist, it reduces the absolute numbers of injuries and deaths, which is counter-intuitive.

And, as an added benefit, slower, pedestrian- and cycle-friendly streets also drastically reduces deaths and injuries for motorists.

It is difficult to get the number of deaths to zero in all years (although this is the explicit goal in Sweden), but it is possible to lower the risk to close to zero, far lower than in Hamilton today. Safety is no accident, to use a workplace safety slogan.

Comment edited by kevlahan on 2013-11-22 13:36:11

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By Core-B (registered) | Posted November 22, 2013 at 20:06:01

I don't know how this adds to the discussion, but a long time ago, a friend of mine struck and killed a young child. The child ran between 2 parked cars on a quiet slowly travelled street. It was clearly not his fault but that is not my point. Knowing he did nothing wrong, it still tore him apart. He even contemplated suicide. I guess my point is I agree with this article and that we need to do so much more to reduce the suffering for everyone. What's the harm in that.

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By Michelle Martin (registered) - website | Posted November 23, 2013 at 17:25:54

Well, if you only look at things from the perspective of what's in it for you, that you should have your trip across the city by car take 10 minutes longer if traffic calming measures are introduced, let's talk money.

Safe streets = more pedestrians and cyclists = better air quality = less respiratory illness due to poor air quality = healthcare savings = fewer taxpayer dollars

Safe streets = accessible streets = less need for specialized transportation = fewer taxpayer dollars

Safe streets = more kids who can walk to school = healthier kids = healthcare savings = fewer taxpayer dollars

Safe streets = more pedestrians and cyclists = fewer transport trucks on city streets = decreased road maintenance costs = fewer taxpayer dollars

See - we can save money, get a little exercise, and still take the car sometimes. Why is this such a radical thought?

Comment edited by Michelle Martin on 2013-11-23 17:26:13

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By LOL all over again (anonymous) | Posted November 24, 2013 at 23:50:04

You really should have done a little homework before you wrote the article. Under Canadian law in the case of a vehicle and pedestrian accident the driver of the vehicle is assumed to be at fault. Strange but true. One of the reasons vehicle owners are required to have third party liability insurance but are not required to have collision insurance on their own cars.

Not so long ago more drivers died in accidents in Hamilton than pedestrians. In the years from 1985 to 2009 the accident and pedestrian fatality rate in Hamilton trended DOWN not up. If fact Hamilton had one of the lowest rates in Canada. But of course that wasn't good enough for the powers that be and major changes were made to the road network and the resulting consequences may very well have caused an uptick in the fatalities to pedestrians.

I know you like to paint these pictures of the evil car driver and the poor harmless pedestrian but in reality more times then not that is not the case. The latest accident were the senior was killed is truely a deplorable thing. Any driver who drives a car were they cannot see out properly they deserve to have the book thrown at them. In most instances however that is not the case. The lack of charges in most car vs pedestrian accidents when the driver is assumed to be at fault points to the fact in a lot of the accidents the pedestrian is at fault.

If you want to change the law in Canada that the driver is always charged with careless driving then please go ahead and lobby that change. I bet millions of citizens disagree with you but maybe I am wrong and they will side with you.

The laws in Holland reflect the conditions of that country. It is a tiny country with cities and towns that are very densely populated. Transit and cycling are king and the standard way of commuting to and from work. Car ownership is very low. Quite the contrast to Canada were commuting by car is the standard and every other mode is a distant second.

The difference in the law reflects the difference in not only the physical differences between the country but also the difference in the attitudes and beliefs of the population. Again if you wish to change the laws please feel free to lobby for those changes. I believe that you are part of a tiny, tiny minority but maybe not.

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By Cultosaurus (registered) | Posted November 25, 2013 at 10:47:05 in reply to Comment 95139

You are completely talking out of your ass, plain and simple. Where are you getting your stats re: at fault? I know you want to keep on driving and living the suburban dream but it's time to wake up.

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By LOL@LOL (anonymous) | Posted November 25, 2013 at 09:00:40 in reply to Comment 95139

For someone who writes alot of words you sure don't seem to know how to read that good.

"The lack of charges in most car vs pedestrian accidents when the driver is assumed to be at fault points to the fact in a lot of the accidents the pedestrian is at fault."

Most of the time the drivers are found to be at fault. And most of the time they are charged. The usual penalty for running over a pedestrian and killing them is a $500 ticket. If you think that's a fair price to pay for killing someone I hope I never have to share the road with you.

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By krist (registered) - website | Posted December 04, 2013 at 22:40:23 in reply to Comment 95144

This reply hurts my brain. "For someone who writes alot of words you sure don't seem to know how to read that good". It is difficult to seriously consider the criticisms of a poster who preaches literary skills yet refuses to apply standard grammar in their own writing.

Great article! Truly highlights the issue that will probably take the cake in the election; city wide transportation and how it will drive us into the coming generations. I hope we'll all be able to convince residents of the city that as a whole we need to reflect upon the health of the population above what is convenient (speed). Municipal nominees need to develop a mental mantra that major and minor streets belong to neighbourhoods as well the city. We're all in this together, and I hope that someone can convince Ferguson to stop making this issue so divisive.

Michelle has a great list above on how healthy residents = less taxes. Healthy residents = healthy city. Keep it up Ryan.

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By shutup.flanders (registered) | Posted November 29, 2013 at 12:56:01

Good article, highlights lots of my concerns. My grandmother was hit and killed while she was crossing King Street.

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By LOL all over again (anonymous) | Posted December 10, 2013 at 21:42:17

Not sure what you mean by stats re: at fault. Ask any cop or any lawyer what the law in Ontario is.

As for the stats re: collisions I was using this report,
http://www.hamilton.ca/NR/rdonlyres/E8EE9F6D-95BE-483C-A055-517F1B7EE933/76133/2010CollisionReportFinal.pdf

For stats re: charges I was using an article that was posted here which documented every pedestrian death in Hamilton for a whole year and less than half the drivers were charged.

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