2010 Villain: Blaming Pedestrians
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2010 Villain: Blaming Pedestrians

Illustration by Matthew Daley/Torontoist.

Torontoist is ending the year by naming our Heroes and Villains—Toronto’s very best and very worst people, places, and things over the past twelve months. From December 13–17: the Villains! From December 20–24, the Heroes! And, from December 27–30, you can vote for Toronto’s Superhero and Supervillain of the year.

Like clockwork, every year, pedestrian injuries peak in winter and early summer. In fact, we’re likely just coming down from one such peak right now—the switch back from Daylight Savings Time has been blamed for triggering it. But January of this year saw a much worse rash of traffic collisions, which at one point killed ten pedestrians in eight days. The police response? A widely publicized “pedestrian blitz” that handed out tickets for jaywalking, which in many cases is not, in fact, an offense.
For one reason or another, pedestrians end up bearing the brunt of public scorn for collisions. In the typical absence of conclusive evidence of fault, it’s all too easy to write off collisions by deciding, as the Star’s Christopher Hume put it, that “pedestrians are naughty children who must be protected from themselves.”
What we’re not asking is why we tolerate so much danger on our city streets, and so little action to against it. Especially when everyone, from the Shawn Micallefs to the Don Cherrys of the world, is a pedestrian sometimes.
For three years in a row now—2008 [PDF], 2009 [PDF], and the first quarter of 2010 (no newer statistics were available) [PDF]—Toronto has had more traffic collisions per 100,000 people than any other city in Canada. On average, 2,220 pedestrians are struck in reported collisions every year, of which only one hundred escaped unharmed. Typically, twenty-eight victims die, but this year, fourteen died in January alone—a record-breaking number of fatalities clustered in central Toronto. The city’s latest official statistics [PDF] show that only twelve percent of injury victims were ruled to have been “inattentive” at the time of a collision, a percentage that has remained virtually unchanged since 2004 [PDF]. Vastly more often than not, pedestrian victims were in a normal, attentive state, had the right of way, and were crossing in good road conditions.
Unfortunately, pedestrian victims have few natural defenders. In discussions about traffic safety they tend to get lumped in with cyclists, which dooms things for several reasons. Being mentally filed alongside cyclists doesn’t actually give pedestrian victims any dedicated representation, for starters, and the two groups have different (though sometimes related) needs, and use different parts of the roadway altogether. Moreover, this puts pedestrians squarely in the crossfire of the so-called “War on the Car.” Furthermore, while Toronto police generally make great efforts to warn against rushing to lay blame (this year’s pedestrian blitz aside), this strategy can easily backfire. In a climate where conventional wisdom—not to mention mainstream media—hold that pedestrians struck in traffic weren’t adequately protecting themselves, a well-intentioned neutral stance enables commonplace biases towards assuming that dead or injured pedestrians were to blame for their own misfortune.
Ultimately, the situation is alarmingly counter-productive. Because pedestrian injuries and deaths seem to be translated instantly into anecdotal evidence of non-drivers’ carelessness, public attention is diverted from the need to address systemic road safety problems, glossing over the role of infrastructure in promoting or undermining pedestrian safety, and broadcasting an everyone-for-themselves mentality incompatible with the life of healthy communities. The sad results are dangerous roads that stay dangerous, year after year.