The insight behind a movement called Vision Zero – whose goal is reducing road fatalities as much as possible – is that road accidents aren’t really accidental. Crashes, and death, happen for reasons. One reason is that humans make mistakes, but the design of roads can ensure more and deadlier mistakes – such as when roads are built to encourage speed over safety. Once that’s accepted, and thinking shifts from an “accidents will happen” mentality, what follows is obvious: Something can be done. Quite a lot, in fact.
Vision Zero started in Europe in the 1990s. The Swedish Parliament passed a safety bill in 1997. It led to better road design. Gradually, road deaths fell. The annual rate of fatalities there is now almost two-thirds lower.
Other European countries have followed that lead. Think, for example, of Amsterdam and all those bikes. But four decades ago, Amsterdam was clogged with cars. What changed is years of work to reconsider how Dutch cities worked. The same can happen in Canada, and is happening – steadily, but slowly.
When a person is behind the wheel, an emboldened pilot encased in a steel cockpit, moving as fast as possible from A to B seems like the only thing that roads are for. But thinking about everyone else, including all the people not in a car, opens up a potential road revolution.
Methods of change are many. Lower speed limits are the most obvious, along with automated speed enforcement and red-light cameras. Sharing the streets is another – from wider sidewalks to protected bike lanes. Research in the United States shows that protected bike lanes can make streets safer for everyone. Engineering at intersections to slow cars, prioritize pedestrians and provide better lines of sight is big. And “road diets” have been successful – making the driving area smaller, which encourages drivers to slow down. This can be everything from four lanes reduced to three, to slightly narrower lanes.
Vision Zero spread from Europe to North America in the mid-2010s, and since then, the story in Canada is one of incremental improvements.
Toronto dipped a toe in 2016 and, after at first not achieving much, revamped the program in 2019. It looks like it is starting to pay off.
In the eight years from 2012 through 2019, drivers killed an average of 37 pedestrians and three cyclists a year. The pandemic year of 2020 saw a predictable decline, with many fewer cars on the road, but improvements carried over into 2021, which saw 27 pedestrians and one cyclist die. The number of serious injuries of both in 2021 was down by almost half from 2012-19. Early trends this year look positive.
In Edmonton, fatalities of any kind – from drivers to pedestrians – were halved in 2021 compared with 2015. Serious injuries and crashes were down by a third.
Among Edmonton’s recent moves, in summer 2021, is the reduction of speed limits in 50 kilometre per hour zones to 40. The effect isn’t yet clear, but what the data do show is the effectiveness of automated speed cameras.
After the lower speed limit came in, Edmonton’s roving mobile speed cameras gave out almost three tickets an hour in September in 40 km/h zones. By December, the hourly tally was less than one. In 2018 and 2019, those silent speed sentinels, citywide, ticketed an average of 54,000 multiple offenders. In 2021, repeat lead foots numbered fewer than 12,000.
Edmonton’s conclusions are clear: “Automated enforcement helps change behaviour.” Tickets for speeding are – no surprise – “a strong deterrent to speeding.” The same happened in Scandinavia. Toronto has 50 such cameras but on a per-capita basis, that’s a fraction of Scandinavian countries.
On a national basis, almost 2,000 Canadians died each year on the roads in the past decade and injuries totalled about 150,000 annually. But the toll is in decline. Much of that has to do with less death on highways and better car safety. Driving these days is less dangerous – comparing 2016-2020 with 2001-2005, deaths have fallen 43 per cent.
Yet deaths among pedestrians and people on bikes is down only 14 per cent.
Edmonton and Toronto show that concerted change saves lives. How we build our roads matters. Discouraging risky driving – and speed is usually the greatest risk – matters. Road deaths are never really accidents.
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