When David Stark sat down to tell his youngest son that the boy’s mother had been struck and killed by a driver on a bright fall day, the boy thought his dad was kidding.
“It was the worst thing I’ve ever had to do in my life,” Stark recalled of breaking the news to his sons, now aged 13, 11 and eight.
In November 2014, his wife, Erica Stark, had just dropped off a car at a dealership in Scarborough to get winter tires. “That’s just who she was. Very safety conscious,” Stark said.
It was a sunny day with no hint of snow. A driver of a minivan jumped the curb, narrowly missed a line of people waiting for a public transit bus, hit a hydro box, a pedestrian crossing sign and then Erica, he said.
A uniformed officer came to the family home in the afternoon to speak to Stark. He then broke the news to his eldest son, who was home first from middle school. The boy still had tears in his eyes when his brothers arrived home from elementary school, escorted by a police officer and their principal.
“I finally had to say, ‘No Matthew, I’m not joking,'” Stark said. “At that point, he just left the couch where we were seated and he curled up into a ball and started to cry.”
Road safety a public health issue
The careless driving case is before the courts.
Stark said police estimated his wife was thrown at a speed of 34 to 43 km/h, which means the vehicle was travelling much faster than that. The speed limit on the road is 50 km/h.
Stark is now an advocate with Friends and Families for Safe Streets. It’s one of many groups and public health advocates urging government action to reduce road fatalities, by focusing on driver behaviour, road design and auto safety.
Lower speed limits is one of the changes he’d like to see to make streets safer for everyone.
“If you’re hit by a car travelling at 50 or 60 km/h, you have a good chance of not surviving that injury. That doesn’t happen at 30 km/h,” said Monica Campbell, director of healthy public policy at Toronto Public Health.
Not only do fewer collisions occur at the lower speed, but when they do occur, the severity is less.
In 2015, Campbell and co-authors of the report Pedestrian and Cycling Safety in Toronto estimated 67 per cent of pedestrian injuries or fatalities are due to driver error.
On average, about 2,000 pedestrians and nearly 1,100 cyclists were injured or died as a result of a collision with a motor vehicle each year in Toronto between 2008 and 2012, they found.
“Clearly things like distracted driving are an issue,” said Campbell, who is also a professor of public health at the University of Toronto. “People are using their cellphone or texting. They can easily miss awareness of a cyclist or a pedestrian.”
Canada’s poor record
Drivers should slow down and be attentive to pedestrians and cyclists, safety advocates agree.
But road systems also need to be designed to account for inevitable human errors, said Neil Arason, author of No Accident: Eliminating Injury and Death on Canadian Roads.
The Victoria-based road safety expert said he was motivated to write the book because data suggested Canada was not performing well.
For instance, consider findings released this summer from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Canada ranked third worst out of 10 high-income countries for motor vehicle crash deaths, the CDC said.
Arason believes thinking about road safety needs to change and we need to work towards the goal set by Vision Zero, a Swedish initiative to eliminate road deaths and injuries that has been adopted by cities around the world. Rather than assume there’s nothing we can do about crashes, he believes the Vision Zero goal could be within reach in Canada by 2035.
“It’s an opportunity to eliminate major trauma, a terrible form of violence against people,” Arason said.
Enforcing speed limits of 30 km/h in places where pedestrians and cyclists mix with cars could help.
Speed is probably the most crucial factor, said Dr. Louis Francescutti, an emergency physician in Edmonton and a public health professor at the University of Alberta.
“Most pedestrian injuries I see are either very minimal or devastating,” Francescutt said.
Francescutti points to seniors and children as particularly vulnerable and deserving of attention.
Arason also wants engineers to design safer vehicles, as Volvo Cars has pledged.
“Our vision is that by 2020 no one should be killed or seriously injured in a new Volvo car,” said Hakan Samuelsson, the company’s president and CEO.
To do so, the company uses a combination of camera and radar sensors that detect pedestrians and then warn the driver or automatically apply the car’s brakes when needed. As well, there’s even an airbag system for the front hood to keep a flying body from hitting the hard engine block when sensors detect pedestrian contact.
Improving road design
Other items on Arason’s wish list include:
- Improve low-cost road design features such as rumble strips and better lane markings.
- Pass federal legislation to earmark a percentage of highway funding for pedestrian and cyclist infrastructure.
- Use those new funds to build sidewalks, install pedestrian traffic islands, construct better crosswalks and add protected and connected bicycle lanes.
In Europe, people who walk, cycle or take public transit get priority in city design.
Doing so here would not only help to achieve environmental goals of reducing greenhouse gas emissions and air pollutants, it would also encourage physical activity and reduce sedentary time to avert chronic diseases such as obesity and Type 2 diabetes, said Campbell, who wrote the Toronto report on pedestrian and cycle safety.
But first, cyclists need to gain safety in numbers. More cyclists on the roads means drivers are more likely to watch out for them.
“It’s a phenomenon that’s been observed in many major cities that as more people are cycling, drivers just become more aware of cyclists,” Campbell said. “They would slow down or take greater precautions.”