Skip to main content

On city streets and in shopping centres, there is usually someone strolling while talking on a phone, texting with his head down. The problem isn't as widely discussed as distracted driving, but the danger is real.The Associated Press

After several years of steady decline, traffic fatalities in Toronto appear to be inching upward once more, and one of the chief culprits, police suggest, is the ubiquitous electronic device.

That may not have been a factor in the most recent death on the city's traffic-clogged roads.

Killed in the north end Monday was an 89-year-old woman who was struck by a car and trapped beneath it as she crossed Elm Road, near Avenue Road and Lawrence Avenue, suffering massive trauma.

Nor was it clear whether she or the 88-year-old driver who hit her was at fault.

Either way, however, her death pushed the number of people killed on Toronto's roads to 41 so far this year, with almost four weeks still to go.

In 2011 the total for the whole year was 35, a 20 per cent drop from the tally of 43 in 2010. In 2009 the number was 48, while in 2008 it was 54.

And Constable Wendy Drummond says she is "absolutely" certain that the era of iPhones, BlackBerries and other communications gadgets has much to do with the recent uptick.

"There's just a lot of distraction, people are in tune with their own lives and their personal devices," she said.

"It plays a key role in the number of fatals. If you sit back and watch, you'll see pedestrians, heads down, earphones on, crossing the street totally oblivious to oncoming traffic."

In general, traffic fatalities are down in most Canadian jurisdictions, and a range of factors have contributed to the drop: public education campaigns, stepped-up law enforcement, notably with regard to speed limits, and better-staffed hospital trauma units.

Add to that, a higher compliance rate of seatbelt use, and in-car safety features such as airbags, anti-locking brakes and electronic stability control devices.

Taken together, all have played a part, police and traffic experts say, and nation-wide, 2010 saw the lowest number of deaths and serious injuries since data was first collected in the early 1970s.

But in Canada's biggest city, an unwelcome reversal of the trend seems to be afoot.

A breakdown of Toronto's 41 deaths so far this year shows 21 pedestrians have been killed, along with seven drivers, four passengers, three cyclists and six people riding motorbikes.

Police have not yet quantified how many of those deaths stemmed from the person not paying attention to their surroundings. But what's for sure is that for the motorist, hands-free devices offer no safety guarantees.

Whatever the technology, Constable Drummond says, a driver focused on something other than driving is at risk, especially if he or she can't hear the noise around them.

"When they've got earphones on, they're closing themselves off – all the signs and signals warning them, they're just not hearing any of them."