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Brightly coloured armbands have become the most recent flashpoint in Toronto’s bitter debate about pedestrian deaths, as fatalities and injuries on the city’s streets continue to mount and safety advocates accuse police of papering over lax enforcement by handing out accessories.

The controversy, which has prompted responses from the mayor and several city councillors, stems from a police event at a mall in the city’s Scarborough neighbourhood on Saturday, when officers distributed reflective yellow-and-orange armbands to senior citizens as part of an educational event about pedestrian safety. The armbands were meant to help make seniors more visible to drivers.

The giveaway came just days after Toronto police revealed they had dramatically reduced traffic enforcement in the past five years, leading to a decline in tickets for drivers even as collisions increased.

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That timing, coupled with growing outrage about the roughly 1,100 pedestrians struck and more than 30 killed in Toronto this year, led critics to accuse the police of putting the responsibility for safety on those who are the most vulnerable, rather than the drivers whose vehicles cause the damage.

“It was shameful, embarrassing and frankly dangerous that the police were suggesting to seniors – who make up the demographic who are most seriously injured and killed on our city streets – that armbands are the answer to road safety,” said Josh Matlow, city councillor for Ward 12. “It sends a message that the onus is on the potential victims.”

Toronto police have suggested that pedestrians should take more responsibility for their safety before, Mr. Matlow pointed out. Police Chief Mark Saunders argued last week that people wearing wireless headphones were contributing to unsafe road conditions.

“It’s absurd that the chief of police is lecturing people who use earbuds rather than [providing] meaningful enforcement,” said Mr. Matlow, who is also the city’s seniors advocate. “This city needs a lot better than this.”

In a public report ahead of last Thursday’s police services board meeting, Chief Saunders revealed that his force does not have a full-time traffic enforcement team. That has contributed to a sharp drop in the number of tickets handed out annually, to roughly 200,000 last year from about 700,000 in 2010.

Since the dedicated traffic enforcement squad was disbanded in 2013, meanwhile, collisions on Toronto streets have shot up, to nearly 80,000 from about 60,000.

Toronto police have been defending their approach to road safety in recent days. On Thursday, the police services board approved the creation of a new full-time traffic enforcement unit, comprising two teams of three officers and a supervisor each. The force has also pointed to more red-light camera tickets and planned speed reduction corridors on certain streets as evidence of their commitment to keeping pedestrians safe.

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In response to questions about the armbands, Deputy Chief Peter Yuen issued a statement Sunday saying the force’s Chinese Community Consultative Committee had requested the high-visibility accessories for the meeting on Saturday, “because visibility is a key contributing factor in many pedestrian, road and traffic incidents.”

A statement from Mayor John Tory’s spokesperson Don Peat said the mayor was committed to the city’s Vision Zero 2.0 plan for reducing traffic fatalities, pointing to lowered speed limits and sped-up road redesigns.

Still, safe streets advocates maintain the armbands illustrate a police force whose priorities are dangerously misplaced. Kyle Ashley, a former Toronto parking enforcement officer who became famous for his defence of the city’s bike lanes, said the images of seniors strapping on neon fabric in order to go for a walk had “struck a nerve.”

“I think it was just a visual reminder of how the Toronto police value people who don’t get around by car,” he said. “That complement of officers could have been out on the roads handing out tickets instead of handing out armbands.”

On Friday afternoon, a 91-year-old man was struck by an SUV while crossing Lawrence Avenue West and taken to hospital with life-threatening injuries. On Friday night, an 84-year-old man was struck by an SUV while crossing St. Clair Avenue West and also taken to the hospital with life-threatening injuries.

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