There are better ways to implement lower speed limits.
Toronto’s Vision Zero plan was always going to be a great plan—until its details were released.
What politician wouldn’t want to be associated with a plan to save lives? Even great champions of cars support a lower death toll on roads, so long as the business-as-usual model stays in place. Toronto’s Road Safety Plan [PDF], released last week, outlines a number of credible measures to improve road safety; but the lazy timeline, small budget, and submissive goal leave the impression that the priority is protecting the status quo, not the safety of road users. Even while acknowledging the Vision Zero goal, the Toronto plan aims merely to reduce “the number of fatal and serious injury collisions by 20 per cent by 2026,” providing a stark insight for what’s considered an acceptable “balancing” of safety and mobility. The other 80 per cent—or 400 lives (along with about 3,000 seriously injured bodies)—are apparently expendable.
The Swedish-inspired Vision Zero strategy actually rejects the notion that death is an acceptable price for mobility. When Councillor Jaye Robinson (Ward 25, Don Valley West), as chair of the Public Works Committee, announced the creation of a comprehensive road safety plan last year, she made enough references to Vision Zero to confirm the origin, and anticipated goal, of the Toronto initiative. But when Toronto’s proposed plan was made public both Robinson and Mayor John Tory appeared pleased with the strategy and the goal. Only after negative public reaction did they change their tune, but without elaborating any new proposals.
In Toronto, public debates about road safety often degenerate into angry finger-pointing about behaviour that annoys us—such as pedestrians rushing to beat count-down signals—instead of what’s actually sending people to the morgue or emergency rooms. In fact, the focus on education and etiquette, although commendable, often serves only to deflect attention from the inherent danger of cars. The speed, power, and weight of cars and trucks mean that even a minor mistake—by motorist, pedestrian, or cyclist—can result in a deadly outcome.
A good plan recognizes human error, which contributes to 90 per cent of collisions in Toronto, as behaviour to be addressed with various structural and operational changes to roads. This is why Vision Zero plans routinely account for human error and the inherent danger of cars by targeting not only speeding but speed limits. Lower speeds allow motorists to stop sooner or pedestrians time to get out of the way; and when there is a collision the risk of death or serious injury is reduced significantly. These considerations motivated both Ontario’s chief coroner and Toronto’s medical officer of health, in separate reports several years ago, to recommend lower speed limits.
Toronto’s safety plan does make welcome, even courageous, recommendations for speed reductions on 50 segments of roads, including on arterials. The speed limit on Dixon Road (near Rexdale Boulevard), for example, with its many residents in high-rise apartments, is being reduced from 60 to 50 kilometres per hour. Spadina Road and Avenue, between Davenport and Harbord where an expressway was once planned, is being reduced from 50 to 40 kilometres per hour.
If Councillor Robinson is serious about road safety, she will ensure that the recommended speed reductions are implemented quickly, and then propose reductions on other roads.
Indeed, there is good reason for Robinson to propose the elimination of all 60 and 70 kilometres-per-hour limits, speeds at which a pedestrian’s chances of survival in a collision approach nil. If there is still a justification for such deadly speeds on particular streets, the onus should be on its proponents to make the case.
When 60- and 70-kilometre signs are taken down, the provincially set urban default speed of 50 kilometres per hour automatically applies. In short, it costs the city virtually nothing to change the speed on such streets. But when limits are changed to 30 or 40 kilometres per hour, a new sign must be posted at some expense. (Reductions to 30 kilometres per hour approved last year for residential streets in the old Toronto require the posting of signs, which explains the slow implementation.)
The obvious knock on lower speed limits is that many roads are engineered for speed, so many motorists will simply ignore them. The usual answer is to re-engineer roads to provide appropriate visual cues, such as narrower road widths. Unfortunately, such changes cost millions or even billions of dollars across the city’s 5,400-kilometre road network, thereby providing another ready-made excuse for delay and inaction.
The simple solution to ensuring respect for posted limits is enforcement with safety or speed cameras. Various studies cited in the Toronto plan provide evidence of the astounding benefits of enforcement. A University of Alberta report for Edmonton [PDF] found that automated enforcement of existing limits “resulted in a 32.1 per cent city-wide reduction in fatal and injury collisions.” Reports from other cities came to similar, albeit less dramatic conclusions. Another report [PDF] found “a 13.4 per cent decrease in injury collisions at locations within 500 metres of an automated speed enforcement camera” in New York City.
The Province, which has authority over speed cameras, says it may grant such authority to a city, if asked (so it doesn’t have to take the credit). Robinson and Tory must meet with the Province as soon as possible to ask for the authority to use speed cameras. The current safety plan includes only a meek recommendation for a “Watch Your Speed” program with digital speed displays.
Lower speed limits will also help reduce the Toronto average of 56,000 road collisions annually, many of which cause substantial delays.
The plan does have many good recommendations for design, engineering, and other improvements—changes to curb radii to slow turning cars, advance crossing signals for pedestrians, and collaboration with police to review possible roadway changes after a fatal collision. But with a limited budget only a small number of changes can be made each year. Mid-block crossings, for example, that are necessary so people, including seniors, don’t have to walk a kilometre just to cross the road safely, will only be installed at the stingy pace of five per year.
A bigger budget to implement safety measures sooner will save lives.
Four hundred deaths and thousands of serious injuries on Toronto roads over the next decade is not an acceptable price for mobility. If Robinson and Tory are serious about road safety, they know where to start.
Albert Koehl is a road safety advocate, co-founder of Bells on Bloor, and author of an online guide for transport advocates, Road Follies.