6 road safety changes that could save lives

City councillors representing the old cities of Toronto and East York voted Monday night to reduce speed limits on their neighborhood streets to 30 km/h.

Councillor Gord Perks told the Toronto Sun’s Don Peat this decision “is about saving lives. Kids run around on our streets, clinic we should be keeping them safe.”

Do you feel safer?

Councillor Joe Cressy quoted oft-cited statistics proving the faster a car is travelling when it hits a pedestrian, the more likely the pedestrian will be seriously injured or killed. This is true. It’s high school physics in action.

Cressy told the Sun: “If you’re hit by a car at 30 km/h, your chance of survival is 90%. If you’re hit by a car at 45 km/h, your chance of survival is 50%.”

You can quibble over the percentages by a few points here or there, but statistics like these can be found in numerous credible studies. I can’t argue physics. But, physics isn’t the only factor involved in reducing risk.

For sake of argument, however, let’s say it was. If speed is all that matters, why pick 30 km/h? Even then, one in 10 pedestrians hit by a car will still die. Is that really an acceptable casualty rate, Councillor Cressy?

Why not reduce the speed even further? At 20 km/h, most drivers could stop before hitting a pedestrian that pops out 10 metres ahead of them. That could reduce the fatality rate to near zero.

Psychology matters, too. Numerous behavioural studies have shown people tend to obey laws they feel are reasonable. Transportation studies show drivers tend to drive at a speed they feel is comfortable for the roadway, regardless of the posted limit, unless it is strictly enforced. Enforcement is expensive.

But the biggest flaw in the councillors’ plan is galling: they’re fixing the problem on the wrong streets. Over 92% of pedestrians struck by cars between 2009 and 2013 were not even on the local roads affected by Monday night’s decision.

This decision will make councillors feel better, but is unlikely to prevent a single accident or save a solitary life. It will, however, cost a lot of money. And that, may cost lives elsewhere.

City staff estimate the cost for the councillors’ folly will be about $1.1 million to install new signs and re-time traffic signals. More, if aggressive enforcement is required. No doubt, someone will argue “if it saves just one life, it’s money well-spent.” Except, it’s not. If it saves just one life, it’s a tragic misuse of funds that could have saved many more.

One million dollars could buy two fully equipped fire engines. It could hire 18 additional life-saving paramedics for a full year. Imagine the lives they could save. With our million bucks, Plan Canada could buy 100,000 bed nets that would protect 200,000 people in Africa from malaria (a disease that kills 600,000 people every year) for three years. There’s no end to other, better choices, council could have made to spend $1 million to save many more lives.

But rest assured your councillors will thump themselves on the back, puff up their chests and congratulate themselves this morning after a night of blissful sleep. That no one else will benefit, and many others may suffer, won’t even enter their minds.

Originally published in the Toronto Sun June 22, 2015
City councillors representing the old cities of Toronto and East York voted Monday night to reduce speed limits on their neighborhood streets to 30 km/h.

Councillor Gord Perks told the Toronto Sun’s Don Peat this decision “is about saving lives. Kids run around on our streets, we should be keeping them safe.”

Do you feel safer?

Councillor Joe Cressy quoted oft-cited statistics proving the faster a car is travelling when it hits a pedestrian, the more likely the pedestrian will be seriously injured or killed. This is true. It’s high school physics in action.

Cressy told the Sun: “If you’re hit by a car at 30 km/h, your chance of survival is 90%. If you’re hit by a car at 45 km/h, your chance of survival is 50%.”

You can quibble over the percentages by a few points here or there, but statistics like these can be found in numerous credible studies. I can’t argue physics. But, physics isn’t the only factor involved in reducing risk.

For sake of argument, however, let’s say it was. If speed is all that matters, why pick 30 km/h? Even then, one in 10 pedestrians hit by a car will still die. Is that really an acceptable casualty rate, Councillor Cressy?

Why not reduce the speed even further? At 20 km/h, most drivers could stop before hitting a pedestrian that pops out 10 metres ahead of them. That could reduce the fatality rate to near zero.

Psychology matters, too. Numerous behavioural studies have shown people tend to obey laws they feel are reasonable. Transportation studies show drivers tend to drive at a speed they feel is comfortable for the roadway, regardless of the posted limit, unless it is strictly enforced. Enforcement is expensive.

But the biggest flaw in the councillors’ plan is galling: they’re fixing the problem on the wrong streets. Over 92% of pedestrians struck by cars between 2009 and 2013 were not even on the local roads affected by Monday night’s decision.

This decision will make councillors feel better, but is unlikely to prevent a single accident or save a solitary life. It will, however, cost a lot of money. And that, may cost lives elsewhere.

City staff estimate the cost for the councillors’ folly will be about $1.1 million to install new signs and re-time traffic signals. More, if aggressive enforcement is required. No doubt, someone will argue “if it saves just one life, it’s money well-spent.” Except, it’s not. If it saves just one life, it’s a tragic misuse of funds that could have saved many more.

One million dollars could buy two fully equipped fire engines. It could hire 18 additional life-saving paramedics for a full year. Imagine the lives they could save. With our million bucks, Plan Canada could buy 100,000 bed nets that would protect 200,000 people in Africa from malaria (a disease that kills 600,000 people every year) for three years. There’s no end to other, better choices, council could have made to spend $1 million to save many more lives.

But rest assured your councillors will thump themselves on the back, puff up their chests and congratulate themselves this morning after a night of blissful sleep. That no one else will benefit, and many others may suffer, won’t even enter their minds.

Originally published in the Toronto Sun June 22, 2015
Councillors Mike Layton and Gord Perks at the community council meeting discussing speed limits Monday, June 22, 2015. (Craig Robertson/Toronto Sun)
Monday’s blanket reduction in speed limits from 40 to 30 km/h on local roads in the old cities of Toronto and East York will do little or nothing to improve road safety or reduce congestion.  But, ampoule here’s six ideas that might:

School & Playground Zones.  Ontario should introduce school and playground speed zone laws as other provinces have.  In B.C., for example, speed limits are reduced to 30 km/h in school zones from 8 am to 5 pm on school days. The speed limit near a playground is 30 km/h from dawn to dusk every day.  This approach to speed reduction accomplishes two things.  First, it makes sense to drivers so is more likely to be obeyed.  Second, it requires drivers to have a greater situational awareness: what day is it, what time is it, where am I?  This helps make them more likely to avoid an accident in the first place.

Keep Right Except to Pass Law.  Vehicles travelling on Ontario Highways should be legally required to travel in the right lane, except when overtaking a slower vehicle or yielding to traffic entering the highway.  In Germany, this produces a much more predictable traffic flow and helps reduce accidents.

Zipper Feed-in Law.  This simple law would keep traffic moving more fluidly and reduce driver frustration wherever two or more lanes merge into one, as happens routinely at Toronto’s hundreds of construction sites.  It works like this: drivers in both lanes move forward to the merging point and then take turns merging into a single lane.  It’s easy to understand and is the routine practice in Germany because it works.

Eliminate On-Street Parking on downtown streets and major arterials.  This would produce additional lanes for traffic (or bike lanes) and make it easier for drivers to see approaching pedestrians.  The Parking Authority should build small off-street parkades every other block to provide as many parking spaces as were removed from the street within reasonable walking distance.  A design competition could spark some very innovative, attractive solutions.

90-Minutes to Clear Standard.  Washington State and Florida are two of many jurisdictions that have adopted a 90-minute benchmark for clearing accidents on major highways. From the time first responders arrive at a collision, they have 90 minutes to secure the scene, extricate and transport victims, investigate the accident, clear debris, repair the roadway and re-open it to traffic.

Mandatory Driver Training. It takes only a day or two driving around the GTA to realize far too many drivers are completely ignorant of the rules of the road.  These drivers then teach their teenagers the same bad habits.  The most important change, that would produce the biggest improvement in road safety, would be to make it mandatory to complete a properly certified, professionally-operated driver training program before receiving an Ontario driver’s licence.

Modern driver training should include the type of “cockpit resource management” training pilots receive – how to safely manage all the devices, instruments and options available in a modern car without becoming dangerously distracted.  That’s the real cure for distracted driving, not simplistic and over-reaching anti-cell phone laws.

If every Ontario driver had similar training, and we adopted these simple rule changes, our roads would be the safest in North America.