Where is Elmer?

In the beginning of 2010, Toronto experienced a rash of unfortunate pedestrian deaths on its streets. Though a bubble of them occurred in January, the public has become hyper aware of each subsequent incident in recent months. Though our focus on the issue rarely lasts beyond the reactionary police enforcement blitz, there is inarguably a growing problem with the behaviors of drivers and pedestrians. When the public does focus on the issues, pundits, experts and politicians all throw about various arguments and theories that are either, at best – shift blame around until there is little thought on follow-up to solve any issues, or at worst – geared towards assuaging the public that there is no real issue at hand.

Where is Elmer when you need him?

At the current count, there have been a total of fifteen pedestrian deaths. It was difficult to find out exact figures as the numbers have been different in various articles found in the last few weeks. One quoted the number as nine (which is clearly wrong), a map shows 14 (but only reflects January), and a recent article quotes fifteen, although that may only account for Toronto, and not the GTA. However, one of the few agreements in fact is that it is one of the worst years thus far for traffic fatalities involving pedestrians.

At first, there was some debate statistically over whether or not the numbers in January were significant at all. However, regardless of whether or not we’re getting a statistical Poisson Burst at this point in time might be a moot point. A comparison of some traffic accident numbers in the city over the last five years shows two trends:

Pedestrian fatalities in Toronto as a percentage of total traffic fatalities

2009

31 of 48 = 65%

2008

27 of 54 = 50%

2007

23 of 52 = 44%

2006

30 of 57 = 53%

2005

29 of 59 = 49%

While number of fatal collisions in the city overall is dropping slightly, the number of fatalities for pedestrians is rising at the same rate. Though the actual numbers don’t appear to be drastically different, when you start throwing around the ratios, it starts to paint a different picture entirely. And let’s not forget that this is only a small fraction of the actual incidents that occur on our streets – this is only the numbers being run on fatalities. There were 56,612 collisions total in the GTA in 2008, nearly 20% of which involved some sort of reported injury. Over 10,000 people were injured in vehicular accidents, and though the fatalities might be dropping, it’s still pretty startling when you think that every year this occurs. There’s relatively minor fluctuations in the numbers from year to year, but the averages remain the same. Thirty people a day are being injured in vehicular accidents, and according to some official 2005 numbers, six of those people are pedestrians. And you can’t blame that on jaywalking.

Jaywalking, if you’re interested, has been cited as one of the primary causes of these pedestrian deaths, along with aggressive driving, speed, lack of communication and even attempting to blame people who eat in their cars, despite the fact no one was ploughing through a doughnut the same time they were a pedestrian. Each individual case has been turned over, and in each case, a specific problem was identified and held up as a culprit. A woman crossed the street too slowly. The pedestrians walked into an active traffic lane. The intersection is a confusing one.

And the best solutions we have to the problem is a weekend or two of jaywalking ticketing blitzes in the core (not near the incidents themselves, or in areas where it occurs frequently), or to increase fines and penalties for those traveling in excess of 50km/h, again, something that has little to do with what is happening on our streets. In fact, the ‘crackdown’ on street racing is only a showboat a reaction to the latest symptom of the problem we have here in the paved lanes that make up the arteries of Toronto. And it is palatable. You can feel it in the way people drive, the way they enter and exit an intersection. Ten years ago, people spat curses at the occasional driver that ran through a yellow light. Two years ago, I would be surprised and shake my head at the rare instance where someone might roll through the red light, or pull a screeching halt just into the crosswalk. Now, it’s a daily occurrence just in my purview, and I don’t even get outside that much.

The problem isn’t increased penalties. Those penalties mean squat without enforcement. And that’s the real issue at the bottom of it all. The very foundation of this growing set of errors that’s going to result in more and more incidents, and eventually more deaths if its not addressed. There is a lack of enforcement on our streets, and that’s where the problem lies. People don’t respect the simple basic laws because they don’t have to. The odds that they’re going to be caught are pretty small – and especially once they’ve seen an officer with a vehicle pulled over or a speed trap – they’re pretty confident that they’re scot free for the next few kilometers. This applies to both the provincial highways and the municipal streets. But it’s not really on the shoulders of the police to field more officers to police the millions of drivers that flood through and around this city daily. It’s an impossible task, and naïve to believe that even the most vigilant of officers can do more than issue a few tickets a day and it’s no longer putting a dent in the problem.

We need to start putting some technology on the ground that’s going to do exactly what ‘increased fines’ are supposed to do: scare people into obeying the traffic laws.

Give me some feedback!