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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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