Speed Kills

By Angela Bischoff and Tooker Gomberg, Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Following the 2 pedestrian deaths in Halifax 2 weeks ago, we submitted this piece to local papers.

Last week, two women were killed by cars while crossing the street – one woman in Spryfield, and the other on North St., near the Macdonald Bridge. It’s a sad week when people are killed by cars. Are these crashes inevitable, or can anything be done to reduce the “car-nage”?

In newspaper articles, people were quoted at both locations as being very concerned about speeding motorists; several claimed to have witnessed many other close calls. Spryfield residents are angry with the city for creating what they called an “unsafe portion of the road”, and wonder why the road had been widened.

It is a reasonable question: why are roads widened? Typically, roads are widened to increase the capacity of the road, so it can handle more motor vehicle traffic. There seems to be an implicit assumption that more and more traffic moving ever faster is a good thing. That’s why the extra lane was added to the Macdonald Bridge, and why North St. has become a speedway access to the bridge.

But pedestrians killed by motorists are the result of city planning that places a higher priority on the speedy movement of motorists than the safe movement of people on two feet or two wheels.

Motorists travel at the speed that they consider reasonable, given the road design and weather conditions. If there is a straightaway with nothing to slow them down, motorists will take full advantage of the privilege offered them. North Street – where a 53 year old woman was killed last week, and where a cyclist was killed 2 years ago – is a good example of traffic engineers accommodating cars at the expense of more vulnerable road users.

Such accommodation, of course, has implications for the liveability and safety of a city. Historically, streets have had a social purpose: they were public spaces to meet neighbours, and play road hockey and kick-the-can. Now they are speedways for cars and trucks, other users be damned.

But it’s not like this everywhere. American pedestrians and cyclists are two to six times more likely to be killed on the road than our Dutch or German counterparts, according to a recent report in the American Journal of Public Health. Europeans have dramatically reduced their rates of cyclist and pedestrian injuries and deaths over the past two decades by providing more car-free zones, public transit, and well-marked bike paths and lanes. They have reduced speed limits for motorized traffic, and strictly enforce traffic laws. As well, all children are trained in safe walking and biking skills by the age of 10.

Over the past three decades, European citizens fed up with traffic speeding through their neighbourhoods have been pushing for slower traffic speeds. They have found that neighbourhoods designed with traffic-calming measures, and with 30 km per hour speed limits, have fewer traffic fatalities. The goal is safer and more liveable neighbourhoods, and planning priority is given to vulnerable road users like walkers and cyclists.

One German study found that increasing speeds from 25 to 40 mph tripled the proportion of car-pedestrian crashes that resulted in death. These crashes not only cost lives, they tax our police forces and health care systems as well – costs born by all taxpayers alike.

By contrast, HRM traffic engineers aim to accommodate increasing car traffic by increasing road capacity and speed. Two different models, two different outcomes.

Wider roads invite motorists to speed, while narrower roads with trees, traffic islands, traffic-calming measures, and bike lanes help slow down the traffic, making those areas safer for all road users – young and old, infirm, handicapped, distracted, etc.. Slower traffic invites more walkers and cyclists, and that helps to make the community safer with additional eyes on the street.

Another key to ensuring safer communities is to design them for mixed-use, where shopping, schools, workplaces and childcare are all within easy walking or cycling distance. The more we isolate different city activities in different parts of town, the more we’ll have increasing volumes of traffic, and motorists trying to speed from home to work to the mall and back home again.

It’s an odd reflection of our culture that when someone is murdered the media show ongoing interest in the story. But when a pedestrian is killed, coverage is fleeting and the victim blamed.

Fact is: we can have safer streets, fewer road killings, less pollution, and quieter neighbourhoods. All we have to do is plan for it and design our roads and transportation systems for people, not cars. Doing less leaves blood on the pavement, and people afraid to walk the streets.
References: Brief History of Traffic Calming (PDF document, ~1M); Toronto Pedestrian Charter (PDF document, ~250k); U.S. Pedestrians, Cyclists at Greater Danger than European Counterparts.