The Canadian Bar Association
Personal Injury

'Complete streets' not a panacea for pedestrian deaths

Toronto personal injury lawyer Sharon Bauer says a plan to create "complete streets" likely won't be a cure-all for the city’s rising number of pedestrian deaths.

“It’s great the city is trying to do something about it, but I would caution them that there isn’t an instant fix,” says Bauer, a partner with Wolfe Lawyers.

“Nothing is unavoidable. There will always be hazards on the road and that’s because there are factors that we just can’t completely control.”

The number of pedestrian deaths in Toronto has jumped 15 per cent over the past five years, the Globe and Mail reports, and the city hopes so-called “complete streets” will help reverse that trend.

The idea isn’t just to reduce speed, the newspaper reports. It’s about redesigning roads to allow cyclists and pedestrians to safely share the space that is traditionally dominated by vehicles.

Although the city has been moving in this direction for many years, using elements of the complete street philosophy, officials have recently picked a handful to redesign under a pilot project, the Globe reports.

The Complete Streets Guidelines for Toronto suggests dozens of ways to make changes to the city’s roadways. Adjustments depend on the kind of thoroughfare. The plan identifies 17 street types and unique suggestions to improve them.

While cities have an obligation to fix roads where problems have led to increased accidents, Bauer tells AdvocateDaily.com that Toronto’s complete streets guidelines will not address one of the leading causes of collisions: distracted walkers and drivers.

“This will not be a cure-all,” she says. “Even if you make roads safer for drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians to share, people will still be distracted. You can try to deter people from using handheld devices, but you will never stop them completely.”

Similarly, she warns that no amount of engineering will eliminate collisions caused by human error.

Bauer says she once had a client who was stopped at an intersection for a red traffic light. The driver behind him accidentally put her foot on the gas instead of the brake.

"No one could have avoided that accident," she says, noting both drivers said they were not distracted. "There is nothing that anyone could have done to prevent it. It wasn’t about distractions, the speed limit or signage. It was just a mistake that had significant consequences for my client.”

Bauer says city planners should also be mindful of the changes they make and how they could lead to more problems in the short term while users get used to remodelled routes.

“If all of a sudden, there are changes in all these roads, it may take some time for people to become familiar with them," she says. There may even be an increase in accidents.

"The same goes for any improvements made to the aesthetics. People might actually be distracted by attractive new storefronts, street furniture, trees, and the people strolling around on wide pedestrian rights-of-way.”

In the end, human nature may prove to be more intractable than engineering, Bauer says.

“Accidents will happen and you can’t always blame them on road design. You can build a perfectly designed road and an accident can still happen."

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