Naomi Buck is a Toronto-based writer.
Last month, 17-year-old Nadia Mozumder was crossing the street outside her Scarborough school during her lunch break when she was hit and killed by a driver in a minivan making a left turn.
Seven years ago, at another Scarborough intersection, 42-year-old Erica Stark was standing on the sidewalk with her dog, waiting for the light to turn green, when a minivan jumped the curb, hit and killed her.
Two women were killed on two separate clear fall days by two different drivers of a Dodge Caravan, in the same neighbourhood of the same city – a city that has vowed to eliminate pedestrian fatalities entirely.
That goal remains elusive. Since 2016, when Toronto launched the Vision Zero Road Safety Plan, which aims to reduce traffic-related deaths to zero, 356 lives have been lost on Toronto streets, the majority of them pedestrians.
“I need justice for my daughter,” said Nadia’s grief-stricken father, Azizul Mozumder, as he attended her funeral prayers last Thursday, adding that no parent should have to lose their child in this way.
But what does justice look like in a case such as this, and who can deliver it?
Reacting to the news of Toronto’s 19th pedestrian death this year, Mayor John Tory said, “The principal responsibility remains and rests with the people who have their two hands on the steering wheel and their foot on the gas pedal.”
In terms of physics, he is right: Drivers have a lot less to lose than unprotected human bodies. But in the bigger picture, responsibility for the devastation that takes place on Toronto’s streets rests with many, from the planners who design those streets, to the regulators who decide what vehicles can travel on them, to the legislative bodies that govern their use.
The Vision Zero strategy, which originated in Sweden, places the burden of responsibility on city planners and traffic engineers. It impels cities to design roads in such a way that when drivers make mistakes, these won’t cost cyclists or pedestrians their lives. Toronto’s roll-out of the program has involved a suite of measures including reduced speed limits, speed and red light cameras, safety zones around schools and seniors’ residences, speed humps and designated bike lanes.
It’s a good start. But it’s not enough. And it may never be. Consider a city such as Oslo, which succeeded in achieving zero pedestrian and cyclist fatalities in 2019. To do so, it eliminated all street parking in the city core, converted entire swaths of the city into car-free zones and introduced tolls for all vehicles entering the city. Toronto city council isn’t there yet.
Rather than hold our breath until it is, we should get serious about penalties. Drivers who kill pedestrians are typically charged with careless driving under Ontario’s Highway Traffic Act. Found guilty of this, the driver who killed Erica Stark received a $1,000 fine and a one-month driving ban. Against mounting criticism of the lenience of such sentences, the Ontario government added a new offence – careless driving causing death or bodily harm – in 2018, which raises the maximum fine from $2,000 to $50,000. But neither charge brings with it a mandatory suspension of the driver’s licence or driver training.
Imagine if this applied to other licensed activities – if dentists who accidentally killed their patients or registered massage therapists who broke their clients’ backs or crane operators who dropped steel beams on passersby were fined and then allowed to resume practice.
As a car-centric society, we consider driving a right, just as we feel entitled to use our phones at the wheel and to hide behind tinted windows to avoid being caught. Although distracted driving has surpassed impaired driving as a cause of fatalities, police still don’t have the right to request a mobile phone at a crash site, nor can courts compel phone records – unless the driver was seen on their device leading up to the collision.
Driving is a privilege. Canadians’ marked preference for pick-up trucks and SUVs – extraordinary in the context of urbanization and climate change – means that this privilege comes with huge responsibility.
“I hope whoever is watching this, whenever you see a pedestrian, regardless if they’re young, old or a youth, please slow down, look left, right and centre – and then proceed,” Moqsood Hussaine, a friend of the Mozumder family, told CBC News. “Because you’re not just hurting one person.”
Pedestrian fatalities are tragedies. Lives are lost and other lives – including those of the drivers – are destroyed. True justice in these cases can never be served. Collectively, we should do everything possible to prevent them from happening in the first place.
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