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Pedestrian deaths prompt Vancouver council into action Add to ...

Abbotsford made national headlines in 2008 and 2009, when it was labelled the murder capital of Canada two years in a row.

The slayings – eight murders one year, nine the next – shocked the former farming community and rocketed the Fraser Valley city of 160,000 to the top of statistical charts.

But the following year, in 2010, when 11 people were killed by vehicles that hit them while they were walking on the street, no one paid much attention, except local media.

“It’s almost like we’ve come to accept that, as a commuter society, someone’s going to get hit,” says Ian MacDonald, an Abbotsford police constable. In spite of that, his force tackled the problem with the same intensity they did the gang problem. They came up with provocative advertising campaigns and used ticketing blitzes.

This year, there have been no murders in Abbotsford so far. But there has been a pedestrian death: A 17-year-old boy was killed two weeks ago, struck by a car while he was walking home from a late-night party. The body of Desmond Bassi, a promising athlete who had won a football scholarship to Simon Fraser University, was found sprawled in the middle of the street by a passersby at 1:30 on a Saturday morning.

The reality is, pedestrian deaths often exceed homicides in many municipalities, but they tend to only get attention when they are clustered together.

That’s what has happened this year in Vancouver, where nine deaths in the first six months of the year – and an elderly woman hit Wednesday who is in critical condition – provided the push for city council to bring in a raft of new safety measures this week, including a speed reduction on one of its main commuter routes through the Downtown Eastside.

But often pedestrian fatalities are relegated to one-paragraph briefs in newspapers, making them almost invisible. As for the roughly 1,600 people injured every year, they don't even rate that much ink. That’sespecially true for the suburbs, where in fact more than half of all pedestrians are killed every year and where the likelihood of being hit, in relation to the numbers of pedestrians, is much higher than in the city. In 2010, five people were killed in the city of Vancouver out of 32 deaths in the Lower Mainland.

In the Vancouver region, the big picture is obscured even more by the fact that statistics-collecting is divided among several different police forces.

Although ICBC collects the regional statistics, it is always two years behind and its numbers don’t match those of the police – whose data sometimes don’t match the number of deaths reported in the media.

As a result, few people even realize that the region’s pedestrian death and injury rate is as bad as it is – worse than the rate in either Toronto or Montreal, where police have been mounting aggressive pedestrian-safety campaigns in the last few years.

Those campaigns appear to be working.

According to RCMP statistics, 32 people died after being hit by cars in the Lower Mainland in 2010 – about average for the region, where deaths have ranged in previous years from 30 to 42, according to varying sets of statistics.

In the entire city of Montreal, a metropolitan region with a population of about 1.9 million compared to the Lower Mainland’s 2.3 million, there were only 18 deaths last year, down from a high of 27 in 2006.

In Toronto, there were 20 pedestrian deaths last year in a metro region of 2.6 million, down from the 23 to 31 that had been the norm in previous years.

The Lower Mainland has some catching up to do.

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