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Lower residential speed limits, Ontario coroner urges

After reviewing a troubling spate of pedestrian deaths, Ontario’s chief coroner is calling for an overhaul of the province’s roads to bolster safety.

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In an era when the car is no longer the undisputed king of the road, Ontario's chief coroner is calling for an overhaul of the province's streets to bolster pedestrian safety, including suggesting many residential speed limits be lowered to 30 kilometres an hour.

Andrew McCallum made this recommendation and 25 others Wednesday after analyzing the circumstances of 95 pedestrian deaths on Ontario roads in 2010. The review found that 67 per cent of the fatalities took place on streets with a posted speed limit above 50 km/h, while only 5 per cent occurred on roads with a lower limit.

Other significant factors cited in the review were jaywalking – nearly one-third were killed as they tried to traverse a street outside of a crosswalk or intersection – and inattentive motorists and walkers. In fact, pedestrian distractions, such as smartphones, music players and dogs, may have contributed to about 20 per cent of the fatalities compared with 14 per cent linked to driver inattention.

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"We know that we need to make … a road paradigm shift," said Deputy Chief Coroner Bert Lauwers, who led the pedestrian-death review. "We don't do well when we're struck by a car and we do a lot poorer when the rate of speed is high."

Echoing a contentious recommendation made by Toronto's medical officer of health in the spring, the province's top death investigators are urging municipalities to lower speed limits to 30 km/h on many residential streets and to drop the unsigned limit to 40 km/h from 50 km/h.

Dr. Lauwers said a change to the provincial Highway Traffic Act would be needed to reduce the unsigned speed limit, but a spokesman for Transportation Minister Bob Chiarelli suggested municipalities already have the power to reduce speeds within their boundaries.

"This should be a decision for local representatives to make with their communities," said David Salter, the minister's press secretary.

Back in April, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford balked at the idea of lowering speed limits by 10 to 20 km/h, calling the proposal "nuts, nuts, nuts, nuts." But Dr. Lauwers said research shows that people struck by a car travelling 50 km/h are twice as likely to die than at 40 km/h and five times more likely to perish than at 30 km/h.

The review of pedestrian deaths follows an Ontario coroner's probe of cyclist fatalities, released in June. That review, which examined 129 cyclist deaths between 2006 and 2010, prompted 14 recommendations for improving bike safety and curbing fatalities. They included developing a provincial cycling plan, designing streets to accommodate all road users – and a controversial call to make helmets mandatory for all riders, which is the case in British Columbia, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. The coroner is also urging Transport Canada to require heavy trucks to install side guards to help prevent cyclists and pedestrians from falling underneath and getting crushed by the rear wheels. The federal transport regulator, however, has maintained there is not sufficient evidence to support such a regulation.

Ontario's Transportation Ministry, which is finalizing a provincial cycling strategy, will take a close look at the proposals to bolster pedestrian safety, Mr. Salter said. With the changes, the coroner believes pedestrian fatalities could be cut by 50 per cent by 2022.

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Many of the recommendations, such as increased enforcement and redesigning communities to better accommodate all road users, would cost money, but they underscore the changing nature of Canada's traffic-clogged cities. More and more, people are commuting by bike, transit or on foot.

Ontario Provincial Police Chief Superintendent Don Bell supports the coroner's pedestrian-safety recommendations, which include encouraging walkers to put away their smartphones. Distracted pedestrians have become a major challenge for police officers, he noted.

"Walking is like driving a motor vehicle," Mr. Bell said. "By not paying attention in a road-traffic situation, you are putting your life at risk."

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About the Author
National news reporter

Renata joined The Globe and Mail's Toronto newsroom in March of 2011. Raised in the Greater Toronto Area, Renata spent nine years reporting in Alberta for the Calgary Herald and the Edmonton Journal, covering crime, environment and political affairs. More

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