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Schwandt is deputy medical health officer of the Saskatoon Health Region.
San Francisco has a public health problem on its streets, and so does the rest of the country. Guns were used to murder 8,454 people in this country in 2013, but more than 32,000 people — almost four times as many — were killed on our roadways that year. While gun violence rightfully draws intense media attention, this country has become collectively indifferent to the many more people killed while walking, biking or riding in vehicles. With cities such as San Francisco and New York leading the way, there is growing momentum at the local, state and federal levels to end traffic deaths. Under the leadership of Mayor Ed Lee and the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, we adopted a goal in February 2014 of eliminating all traffic deaths in San Francisco by 2024, whether people are walking, riding a bike or in a vehicle. A staggering one-half of all patients seen at San Francisco General Hospital’s trauma center are injured in some type of collision involving a motor vehicle. Recent research estimates that the medical costs for just the pedestrian injuries treated at the hospital amount to $15 million each year, and three-fourths of that money comes from taxpayers. In San Francisco, 12 percent of streets are the site of more than 70 percent of severe and fatal collisions, and half of those high-injury streets are in low-income neighborhoods or those with high populations of seniors or people of color. U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx has challenged all mayors to take action over the next year to improve safety for people walking and riding bicycles.
I was raised on a ranch in a small community where everyone knew everyone. I also was inducted into the reality of accidental death at a very early age. When I was ten years old, Gordon Collier, my friend, my crush, the most beautiful boy in the world, died while riding a dirt bike at a nearby gravel pit. What stands out in my mind is the affect on the family and on (we) the children. What I learned from that experience is there is no acceptable number, no acceptable loss. The impact of Gordon’s death on his friends, classmates, family and community was beyond measure. When we determine change and policy based on statistics, we are completely ignorant of the true impact of the issue. It simply can not be measured in numbers or dollars and cents.
I fast forward to July 27th, 2013. I did not know that the speed limit was 50km an hour on all residential streets unless otherwise marked, nor did I give it much thought. I did not know that the law would permit speeds of 10 to 12k over the speed limit before issuing a ticket. I did not know what would happen to a person when hit at 50km an hour.
I did not know Neil, or at least I did not know his name, but I knew his face and I knew him as one of the many children who would play near the streets in my community. I was afraid for his safety as he and others would skateboard, bike and play where commuters were “commuting” with little regard for the activity around them. Two weeks before the accident, I found him on the sidewalk rubbing a bruised ankle. I stopped to ask if he was okay, and watched as he nodded and quickly dashed away on his skateboard. That is the last time I saw him alive.
On a Saturday morning I received the email from my neighbour telling me there had been an accident. A boy in front of his house had been struck by a vehicle. It was terrible and I should come. I went, my four-year-old and dog in tow, and we walked the few blocks to the scene of the accident where my neighbour graphically detailed the accident and the the boys’ injuries. Out of respect of the family, witnesses and friends of the boy, I will not speak of the details of the accident other than to say I am sorry, and it is unacceptable. The vehicle hit the 12 year old and then continued to travel three-quarters of a block, up a very steep hill, until it reluctantly came to a stop. It was unbelievable. The first words out of my mouth were, “Obviously the driver was speeding!”
I was quickly assured that in fact, what we were looking at was actually what would be expected at 50k- 60k. I did not yet know that this was the same boy who I had helped only two weeks before.
On that day, I came to know the impact of what is seemingly slow speed, has on a human body. I also was made aware that all streets are 50k unless marked otherwise, a speed limit that would most certainly end in injury or death.
I was appalled and angry at a system that had failed, knowing that the legal speed is entirely too fast. I got in my SUV and I went to the very street where the accident happened, and I tried…I really tried. I “punched it”, heart pounding, trying to hit 50km through a blind intersection with a two-way stop that most ignored, up a steep hill, on a road less than four metres across, and I couldn’t do it. I failed… yet an inexperienced driver managed to accomplish what I could not, and a boy who had promise in the world, is no longer with us. And it is completely acceptable. I proceeded to drive other streets in the community and monitored my speed. Never did I comfortably exceed 30k.
I can’t blame the teenage boys who were in the SUV that struck and killed Neil as the law permitted the speed, however fast and dangerous. The 12 year old made a mistake, which children often do. The problem is in the policy, which is outdated, and unsafe.
I went home and I began to research on my computer “speed and pedestrian death”. The information was overwhelming. I found studies and statistics supporting my observation and recommendations from the most credible resources, including the Chief Coroner of Ontario, stating that the currents speeds on residential streets were deadly.
Therefore I refer to a 12 year old boy named Neil, when I speak to lowering speed in communities because Neil defined an issue, which is the safe and acceptable speed on residential streets, and it’s not 50km/hr. It is an undebatable truth in physical law that the chance of death or serious injury does not increase in relation to speed. In fact, the chance of death increases exponentially with even a minor increase (10km/hr) in speed.
• 32 km per hour impact speeds: 5 percent death, 65 percent injured, and 30 percent uninjured
• 48 km per hour impact speeds: 45 percent death, 50 percent injured, and 5 percent uninjured
• 64 km per hour impact speeds: 85 percent death and 15 percent injured – no one uninjured.
Of course it goes beyond speed; it is understanding, education, compassion, empathy, respect and an appreciation for a livable community, regardless of where you live. However, until we as a society reach a level of humanity that puts others before our selves, we have no choice but to create law to govern behaviour. That is the nature of law. For this reason, I request that we reduce the speed in residential communities to save lives and improve livability and safety. There is no statistical number than can measure the loss of a life, or the impact it has on a community. I wish I could go back in time, but I can’t, and now I know… 50k is not okay on residential streets where children play and people live.
It’s time we stopped treating our neighbourhoods like speed bumps.
We’ve heard a lot of bunk about the “war on cars.” People are frustrated by congestion and long commute times. Motorists recoil at any suggestion that they should slow down, share the road or be impeded in any way.
As a result, we tend to value traffic flow over anything that might stand in its way — things like people.
Now, the provincial government is considering reducing the standard 50 km/h speed limit to 40 km/h by amending the Highway Traffic Act.
Coun. Jaye Robinson, chair of public works, told me her committee is already slated to reconsider speed limits in the first quarter of this year. She wants a case-by-case look at the issue, balancing safety with the need for traffic flow.
But any reduction in the speed limit is bound to be met with wailing and blaring of horns from motorists.
In 2012, Toronto’s chief medical officer Dr. David McKeown presented a report to the health board recommending that residential speed limits be reduced.
The report showed the health benefits of a walkable, cycling-friendly city. It showed the cost savings associated with reduced collisions (measured in millions), and it provided evidence that reducing speed limits from 50 km/h to 30 km/h meant a 40 per cent decrease in the probability of a fatal pedestrian collision.
Talk-radio personality Rob Ford called the idea “nuts.” Coun. Denzil Minnan-Wong, then chair of public works, accused McKeown of wasting taxpayers’ money on the report. The following year was one of the worst for traffic fatalities ever recorded.
During the last election, Robinson found many residents concerned about pedestrian safety. Last summer saw the death of seven-year-old Georgia Walsh, hit by a van in a 40 km/h zone.
Robinson said parents are driving their kids to school, just blocks away, because they are too afraid to let them walk. Let’s consider that: more car trips are being made because people are afraid of cars. If more people are driving because they are afraid to walk or cycle, this car-first mentality is actually contributing to congestion. Drivers are their own worst enemies, it seems.
The best way to solve congestion is to take cars off the road. That means enticing those who can to walk, bike or take transit. People are often happy to make the switch, if they feel safe enough. More importantly, the health benefits associated with cities that encourage walking and cycling that McKeown reported are real and measurable. Let’s measure a lifetime of good health against making good time en route to the office. A 10 km/h decrease in speed is a small sacrifice.
Glyn Bowerman is a Toronto-based journalist and theatre artist. He is also a regular contributor to Spacing Magazine. Follow him on twitter @Banquos_Banquet
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