Toronto had its worst year for traffic fatalities in nearly a decade—especially for pedestrians—and nobody's quite sure why.
For a while last year, it looked like Toronto would continue to see lower rates of traffic-related deaths. From 2009 to 2012, the city had reduced its number of traffic fatalities significantly, and it seemed like those rates had stabilized. In the first six months of 2013, Toronto was on pace to tie its 2011 record low of 36 pedestrian, vehicle, motorcycle, and cyclist fatalities.
The second half of 2013, however, was much worse.
There were 45 traffic fatalities in the last six months of 2013—more than in all of 2012. The 2013 total of 63 traffic fatalities was an increase of 43 per cent over 2012, and the number of pedestrian deaths shot up 67 per cent. For the first time since 2004, there were more traffic fatalities in Toronto than homicides.
The City’s transportation division is now analyzing collision and fatality data to try to discern any patterns, but it is very difficult to determine what may have led to this spike. Public works committee chair Denzil Minnan-Wong (Ward 34, Don Valley East) told us that “We have insufficient data to identify the root cause of it.”
As City staff continue to work on the question of causes, we put together some preliminary numbers (not all 2013 data is available yet) to get a better sense of the fatalities themselves—how they are distributed across types of accidents, segments of the population, and parts of the city.
The most glaring finding: it’s pedestrian deaths in particular that are on the rise.
Both pedestrian and vehicle fatalities are down from a peak in 2002, but vehicle fatalities are way down (34 to 12) while pedestrian fatalities are down much less (50 to 40), and after a dip a few years ago they are growing again—last year, they spiked quite sharply. Over the same time period, the number of traffic collisions has declined by 33 per cent, from 18,000 in 2002 to 12,000 in 2010 and 2012. Drivers continue to enjoy increasing safety, which municipal officials attribute to improved vehicle standards, red light cameras, and a decrease in drinking and driving.
Last year’s data also highlights some more general features of traffic fatalities. The most vulnerable demographic, as you might expect, is seniors. Though they make up 14 per cent of Toronto’s population, senior citizens accounted for 60 per cent of pedestrian fatalities in 2013. Potential reasons for this include slower reaction time to cars, poorer eyesight, and a more difficult time in recovering from collisions. Contrary to what the police have suggested about pedestrians in general, it is unlikely that this demographic is hard hit because they are distracted by their smart phones.
Geography plays a role, too: only 15 per cent of pedestrian fatalities last year occurred in the downtown core. Instead, wide arterial roads with high speed limits—think Steeles, Finch, and Eglinton—accounted for most of the deaths. The four cyclist deaths in 2013 also occurred on unfriendly roads, none of which had a bike lane.
Co-founder of Walk Toronto and pedestrian advocate Dylan Reid is quick to point out solutions that could reduce the number of pedestrian fatalities in Toronto. One example: “zebra crossing” crosswalks (like the one in the photo above) are easy to implement and create safer intersections, as their visibility reduces collisions. Toronto implemented a zebra crossing policy in 2006, to phase in the crosswalks as intersections are resurfaced, but Reid would prefer a faster rollout.
Stephen Buckley, the general manager of transportation services for the City of Toronto, agrees that while 1,000 intersections were converted to zebra crossings in 2013 (up from 300 in 2010), it is a project that could be accelerated. “I don’t think I’m satisfied with what we’re doing on that front,” he told us. “I have a lot of our pedestrian realm folks that are giving me reports for suggestions on things, and I’d like to get us to a point where we’re doing effective approaches in effective locations.”
Buckley points to other ways we can improve safety, such as changing curb radii to force cars to make more deliberate turns, and reduce the distance pedestrians need to cross to get from one side of the street to the other. However, these kinds of improvements will have to be made slowly, as the City replaces and redesigns its existing intersections; it only reconstructs about one per cent of transportation infrastructure each year. To this end, the municipal government is focusing on its worst intersections first. In the meantime, they have also changed the intervals on some of Toronto’s most at-risk intersections to be 100 rather than 90 seconds, to give pedestrians (and especially seniors) more time to cross.
But these smaller changes may not be enough without a bigger and more controversial change. The 2012 Ontario Coroner’s review of pedestrian deaths revealed that 67 per cent of pedestrian fatalities occurred on streets with speed limits above 50 km/h, and only 5 per cent were under that limit (the rest could not be determined). Despite this, when Toronto’s Chief Medical Officer of Health recommended a reduction in Toronto’s speed limit to improve health outcomes, he had his job threatened by the mayor on his radio show. Minnan-Wong also dismissed the report, derisively advising Dr. David McKeown to get a job in the transportation department.
Councillor Joe Mihevc (Ward 21, St. Paul’s), chair of the Board of Health, believes that there’s a viable, incremental approach to reducing speed limits. He’s pushing for speed limits in school zones to be lowered to 40 km/h, and is disappointed in the lack of a political will to make difficult choices. “Some might be tempted to say that seniors should be more conscious. But I think the onus should be on the system to react, not place the burden on the individual.”