Early Thursday morning, a 77-year-old woman was run down while crossing Islington Avenue, in Toronto’s northwest, by a driver who didn’t stop to help her. According to police, neither did at least one subsequent motorist, who swerved around the fatally injured senior and kept going.
The callousness of the scene left even veteran road safety watchers in Toronto shaking their heads. But the actions of the motorist who hit her reflect an increasingly common trend: More and more drivers who kill pedestrians in Toronto are fleeing the scene.
So far this year, an analysis by The Globe and Mail found, more than one-quarter of drivers involved in a pedestrian death in Toronto did not stop. That’s double the rate it was just three years ago and three to five times worse than earlier this decade.
This analysis is based on information released by police in the aftermath of these deaths. The numbers do not paint the full picture – some drivers may honestly not realize they hit someone and ultimately not be charged with failing to remain, while in some cases it was only when a person was arrested months later that it become publicly known the driver had fled – but they speak to a troubling trend without an obvious explanation.
“It’s one of those tough things where there definitely would have to be some research done and it would take speaking to the people involved in these crimes, as to why they’ve done it,” said Toronto Police Detective Brett Moore.
European studies show that the impulse to flee after a traffic collision isn’t necessarily rational, and is rooted in fear, shame and guilt. A subset of motorists may be impaired or driving without proper documents and want to evade law enforcement.
Media reports indicate that overall hit-and-runs, including not just pedestrians, are rising in the United States, Australia, England and Wales. But the trend is not universal – they are down in Scotland, as one example – and the steep increase in Toronto hit-and-runs involving pedestrians stands out. Although the reason for this is unknown, experts involved in road safety offer a variety of suggestions for what might be contributing to the rise.
“That [timing] lines up really tidily with the drop-off in enforcement from Toronto police,” said Jess Spieker, a member of the group Friends and Families for Safe Streets, referring to the police axing their dedicated traffic enforcement unit this decade.
Michael Black, who sits on the steering committee of the advocacy group Walk Toronto, said the rise may indicate an assumed impunity on the part of motorists.
“From a pedestrian perspective, hit-and-runs are especially terrifying, because it does signify a culture that’s like the Wild West, where drivers can get away with mayhem,” he said.
Lawyer Patrick Brown, who regularly represents traffic victims, said that drivers who flee are often suspected of being impaired. With distracted driving on the rise and the possibility of more drug-impaired driving after the legalization of cannabis, he added, motorists guilty of these offences might similarly want to escape after a collision.
Mr. Brown also pointed to the incident Thursday morning as an example of how some drivers’ behaviour has become reprehensible, though he used a more scatological term.
“It’s this perception that [deaths are] just an acceptable consequence of our roads,” he said. “I just think it’s a lack of … decency.”
Police descriptions of several of the hit-and-run pedestrian fatalities in Toronto this year do suggest a failure of humanity.
In February, a man crossing Warden Avenue was hit by a driver, who fled. The impact sent his body into another vehicle, the driver of which stayed, before ending up on the road, where he was hit again, by another driver who fled.
Also in Scarborough, a woman crossing Midland Avenue in August was hit by a truck, the driver of which left the scene. She was then hit by another driver, who dragged her down the road before stopping. He exited the vehicle and fled on foot.
Detective Moore deplored drivers who shirk the expectation they will stay after a collision.
“It instantly means guilty mind, right, when you’ve taken off,” he said. “[Stopping is] the right thing to do, I think, and that’s why I say it is a social contract … and that contract is, way more than even just legally, people expect others to stop and render assistance, to do the right thing.”
Injuries can become more serious, even fatal, if aid is not summoned promptly, which is part of why drivers are required to stay after a collision. It’s also one reason drivers who hit someone and flee can face upgraded charges with potentially years of jail time, while motorists who stick around are typically charged with careless driving, which carries modest penalties.
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