Globe editorial: To save lives in Toronto, slow down the vehicles

Toronto is in the midst of a “crisis.” There is “carnage” on its streets.

Those were the words Mayor John Tory used on Wednesday after the ninth pedestrian was killed in Toronto this year. Duncan Xu, 11, was struck and hit by a car near his school at 3:30 p.m. on Tuesday.  “We cannot have this carnage continue,” Mr. Tory said. “I think when you have deaths taking place like this, that’s a crisis.”

We agree. Toronto pedestrians are being killed by vehicles at a rate of more than one a week, setting the city on a course for its worst year ever. And this at a time when the city is making a concerted effort to reduce road fatalities.

In 2016, a particularly bad year for pedestrian and cyclist deaths, Toronto launched Vision Zero, a five-year plan to reduce all road fatalities to zero. So far, it has been a failure. The number of pedestrian deaths in 2017 was almost identical to 2016. And now 2018 has gotten off to a disastrous start.

 It may be time for Mr. Tory to face a difficult truth: Drivers have to slow down. On Wednesday, he hinted gently at that when he said they “need to pay more attention to safety.” But, in typical fashion, he made sure to add that, “People should not categorize this in any way as anti-car or anti-truck.”  Mr. Tory has a solid political reason for couching his message. His efforts to reduce pedestrian and cyclist deaths, along with the creation of more bike lanes during his tenure and the recent (and laudable) car restrictions on one major streetcar route, have exposed him to the tiresome populist criticism that he is waging a “war on cars.”

He would counter that his signature effort to “#getTOmoving,” a program to reduce vehicle congestion, has made a dent in the commute times of Toronto drivers.  But he is sending a mixed message when he says he wants to get drivers home more quickly and pedestrians home more safely. The fact is that drivers in congested cities need to move slowly, and not for the reasons they might think.

A person struck by a car moving at 30 kilometres per hour has a 95-per-cent chance of surviving, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. A person struck by a car going 50 has barely a 50-per-cent chance of making it.   And a person hit by a car doing 60 will almost always die, thanks to the massive increase in kinetic energy produced at that speed.

Lower posted speeds obviously give a driver more time to react, but their higher purpose is to give a pedestrian a reasonable chance of survival in the event of being hit by a car.

Mr. Tory constantly tells Toronto drivers that he wants to make their lives easier. It would be hard to imagine a politician taking a different position. Under his “getTOmoving” initiative, he is spending money on traffic wardens who ticket jaywalkers and illegally stopped cars, and on “quick clear” teams to remove cars and debris that block roads as a result of a minor collision.

His initiatives have merit – commuters need their rides to be as hassle-free as possible, and trucks need to make their deliveries on time. And he has balanced his efforts on behalf of cars and trucks with an increase in bike lanes and the pilot effort to unclog a major streetcar line.

But the simple reality is that lower speed limits save lives. Mr. Tory knows this: The Vision Zero initiative includes lower limits in school zones and areas inhabited by older citizens. And in recent years Toronto has lowered the standard speed limit of 50 kilometres per hour to 40 in some pedestrian-heavy areas.

And yet pedestrians are still being killed, perhaps even more than ever. The laws of physics suggest that many of the victims are being struck by vehicles that are not travelling at the safe posted speeds – a supposition that is especially valid when the victim is a child near his school.

Mr. Tory was right when he said drivers need to pay more attention to safety. But he should be more specific. Drivers need to slow down and rigorously respect speed limits. And they need to know that they will face stiff sanctions if they fail to do so, especially if their speed at impact is determined to be factor in a pedestrian’s death.

Lower posted speed limits are not a “war on cars.” They are an acknowledgment of the physical laws that turn two-tonne vehicles into engines of death at speeds over 30 kilometres per hour, and of the fact that cars share the city with some fragile, and not always predictable, beings.

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