A cautionary tale of pedestrians in Toronto

I am not qualified to write about pedestrians in Canada generally. But I can comment on pedestrians in Toronto, the provincial capital of Ontario, who are a menace to themselves and others.

“Not until I came to Canada did I realize that snow was a four-letter word,” said writer Alberto Manguel. And it may be the Canadian climate that is responsible for a certain sang-froid in its citizens, the long delayed arrival of spring encouraging them to throw caution to the more than four winds. But pedestrians in Toronto have a blind spot for motor vehicles, especially those that attempt to cross their path. Here, path means sidewalk, which is not to be blocked by anything resembling a roadway. In short, pedestrians own the city’s streets and Harper help anyone who gets in their way.

This hard-wired attitude might be thought a legacy of Canadian history, with its legends of repelling English and French invaders and tall tales of grizzlies, wolves, and fifty-foot snowdrifts. Hardy pioneers who footed it across the untamed land may have bred a disdain for any non-peduncular means of transport. But Canada is nothing if not multicultural and today there may well be more people living in Toronto whose cultural origins lie outside the country. Surely, they at least are familiar with the perils posed by drivers whose attention is being diverted by the urgent need to find a Tim Hortons or by the latest antics of the folk on Parliament Hill.

danger-pedestrians-crossing-safety-sign-p3279-118443_zoomPedestrians in Toronto are not streetwise. At a crossing, it is common for a pedestrian to walk straight out without even a cursory glance to see if there is a car approaching. If they do look, they express a range of emotions from amazement that there could be a car in the vicinity to questions about the driver’s parentage.

When the walk signal is white (meaning “go”), pedestrians will launch themselves into the void without a moment’s hesitation. And when the walk signal is against them, they’ll do exactly the same. In Toronto this walking hazard is complicated by the fact that cars can often turn right on a red light – into the path of pedestrians. Add to this iPads and iPhones often concealed inside hoodies or faux beaver fur hats with earmuffs, and the situation becomes lethal.

Commonsense dictates that where traffic control signals are absent or defunct, or when a person is crossing a roadway on a crosswalk (pedestrian crossing), a driver will yield right of way to the pedestrian. This is the law. But, then, so are the following:

“No pedestrian shall leave the curb or other place of safety at a pedestrian crossover and walk, or run into the path of a vehicle or street car that is so close that it is impracticable for the driver of the vehicle or street car to yield the right of way.”

Similarly, “where a pedestrian is crossing a roadway at a point other than within a crosswalk, the pedestrian shall yield the right of way to an approaching vehicle.”

As John Davis wrote in The Post Captain; or, the Wooden Walls Well Manned; Comprehending a View of Naval Society and Manners (1804), “You may tell that to the marines, but I’ll be damned if the sailors will believe it.”

On a serious note, in 2013 according to Toronto police there were more traffic fatalities in the city (63, two-thirds of them pedestrians) than there were homicides (57). It seems that most damage is done by drivers turning left (25%) or turning right (17%) even when pedestrians have the right of way. A further 12% were pedestrians crossing mid-block without traffic lights. Not surprisingly, most pedestrian deaths occur at night.

The single most critical factor was, of course, speed. Nearly 70% of fatalities happened on roads with speed limits above 50 km/h, but when Toronto’s Chief Medical Officer suggested lowering those limits, then mayor Rob Ford (who may have been on speed himself) ridiculed him and dismissed the proposal out of hand.

Toronto’s streets need to be made safer on both counts: drivers being more cautious, and pedestrians being more streetwise and taking their own fragility seriously. Maybe what the city needs is a pedestrian license akin to a driver’s licence. All pedestrians should have to undergo a test and be certified sidewalk-worthy. Beginners could even carry special markings and lights at night – like those senior citizens who use their buggies as Roman chariots to get to the liquor store before closing time. But that’s another story!


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