Not getting better: Many have embraced Vision Zero in Canada, so why aren't we achieving more?

Not getting better: Many have embraced Vision Zero in Canada, so why aren't we achieving more?

On June 27, 2013, Travis Croken was doing what he did most days — riding his bike. A committed cyclist, Croken had taken part in competitive events, but this ride was routine, a daily commute from home to work in downtown Ottawa.

He followed bike paths for most of the trip but ducked down busy Queen Street for the last short stretch. And that is where everything changed.

At the corner of Queen and O’Connor streets, a car quickly passed another trying to turn left. It was directly in Croken’s path. He had little time to react, but knew if he swerved to avoid the car he could be hit by oncoming traffic, so he turned his body, tried to slow his speed and slammed sideways into the car.

He got up, in shock, telling a police officer on the scene he was fine, just needed to get to work. The officer held up Croken’s mangled bike and said: “You are not fine.”

It would take days, weeks and months for Croken to fully understand how devastatingly true that statement was. At first, he was diagnosed with a broken wrist and concussion, but then other, life-altering injuries became clear.

Today, 39-year-old Croken walks with a cane and uses a mobility scooter, lives with traumatic brain injury, memory loss, PTSD, balance issues and, most difficult of all, unremitting pain as a result of brain damage, nervous system damage and permanent spinal damage from the crash. He has been diagnosed with complex regional pain syndrome, sometimes known as the suicide syndrome because of the effect it has on sufferers.

He can’t do things he used to take for granted — riding a bike, mowing the lawn. “Because of my accident, I wake up every day in excruciating pain and I have to choose to face that day. I have to choose to fight.”

Croken, who does community outreach for Ottawa Chamberfest, has reinvented his life to focus on helping others. Among other things, he volunteers helping new Canadians adjust to life in Ottawa, saying it is easier to face each day if he knows others are counting on him to fight for them.

But he can never entirely move away from those few minutes at O’Connor and Queen streets nearly seven years ago.

In December, he told his story publicly for the first time with a video he made urging Ottawa council to make the city’s streets safer to prevent deaths and serious injuries like his.

By doing so, he was speaking for many.

His crash was one of hundreds of collisions involving cyclists every year in Ottawa. Citywide in 2018, 225 cyclists were injured and one was killed in road crashes. Nearly 3,500 road users were injured that year.

Like most crashes, Croken’s attracted little attention. It drew some worried onlookers, including a woman who materialized to offer comfort, but didn’t make headlines or spur a public discussion about street safety at the time. Like the majority of crashes that happen in Ottawa and across the country every day, involving cyclists, pedestrians, passengers and drivers, it went largely unnoticed by everyone except those living with the fallout.

“For the most part, it was just a blip in everyone’s day.”

Across Canada, 1,922 people die and 9,494 are seriously injured on the roads every year, according to the latest available figures, from 2018.

That amounts to more than five deaths and 26 serious injuries every day on average. Since 1950, those numbers have added up to more than 235,000 deaths.

They represent cyclists killed on their way to work, pedestrians killed crossing familiar roads, drivers killed in head-on crashes and thousands of people, like Croken, who live every day with the results of a traffic injury. The vast majority of those are preventable using technology perfected in countries like Sweden, which pioneered Vision Zero for road safety.

Deaths of pedestrians and cyclists and fatal car crashes usually make the news and spur concerns about road safety. In Ottawa, there have been two deaths of cyclists in the Laurier bike lanes in recent years — an unidentified 60-year-old man who died in the Laurier bike lane in front of city hall last May and the 2016 death of 23-year-old cyclist Nusrat Jahan who was hit by a truck. Their deaths, and other high-profile fatalities, helped shine a spotlight on street safety. But the majority of crashes, including those that result in life-changing injuries, simply exist as part of traffic reports and are the daily background of life in Canada.

Traffic deaths and injuries have been slowly dropping in Canada over the past few decades. In 2018, Canada had a road death rate of 5.2 per 100,000, up slightly from a year earlier, but still the second lowest rate on record.

But despite the embrace of Vision Zero — the multi-national road safety project that aims to achieve zero deaths or serious injuries — and safer streets plans by many municipalities and organizations across the country, deaths and injuries continue to add up. An Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development study found that Canada was one of just seven countries to see an increase in pedestrian traffic deaths between 2010 and 2016. Older pedestrians who take longer to cross busy streets are especially vulnerable.

Advocates and researchers say those deaths are unnecessary and steps taken so far do not go far enough. They point to countries like Sweden, which made Vision Zero official road policy in 1997, and Norway, whose capital Oslo had zero traffic deaths in 2019, and say Canada, with nearly twice as many preventable deaths, can and should get to zero.

Canada can dramatically reduce or eliminate road deaths and serious injuries, says Neil Arason, the British Columbia-based author of the 2014 book No Accident: Eliminating Injury and Death on Canadian Roads, and leading expert on road safety. Many of the fixes that would make a difference are relatively easy, and obvious. Solid evidence from other countries show they work. And yet there is little leadership to do so at the national and provincial levels.

“There are so many solutions available — including low-cost solutions — that we could do that would make so much sense,” says Arason.

Some of those solutions include things such as segregated bike lanes, intersections designed to protect cyclists and pedestrians and slow down vehicles, and 2+1 roads which alternate an extra lane on formerly two-lane highways and add an inexpensive cable barrier.

In No Accident, Arason argues it is possible to eliminate deaths and serious injuries from Canada’s roads and highways if citizens “turn their thinking on its head and make road safety a national priority.”

Six years after that book was published, that is still far from the case. Arason points out that road safety continues to be under the radar at both federal and provincial levels in most parts of the country. The Ontario government, for example, recently raised speed limits to 110 km/h on three sections of 400 series highways in southern Ontario. Similar action by B.C.’s former Liberal government increased highway deaths by 11 per cent and were later reversed.

Although Canada was one of the first countries to have a national road safety strategy and was a one-time leader on the issue, it is no longer. In fact, the federal government was criticized for failing to send a minister to the recent global ministerial conference on road safety in Stockholm. Transport Canada later said Transport Minister Marc Garneau had a conflict with the timing of the ministerial meetings. Canada agrees with the conference’s goal of reducing road deaths by half over the next decade, said Transport Canada, but, according to critics, has shown little leadership at a time when road deaths are stagnating and pedestrian deaths are increasing in some cities.

Increasing pedestrian deaths in some Canadian cities have raised alarms. But, generally in Canada, more rural and remote regions have higher traffic fatality rates. Northern Ontario, for example, has nearly two times as many traffic deaths as southern Ontario. Ottawa’s traffic fatality rate is about 2.8 per 100,000, comparable to some top northern European countries.

Still Arason and others say the solutions exist to dramatically reduce deaths and injuries on the road.

“One of the things that frustrates me is that it doesn’t get the priority it needs. Every year, a couple of thousand people are killed on our roads and 10,000 to 15,000 people are seriously injured. We just accept it,” said Arason.

Not everyone does, though.

While advocates continue to push for more federal and provincial leadership on traffic safety, municipalities, organizations, and individuals are not waiting.

Across Canada, there has been a groundswell of support in recent years for initiatives to make roads safer, often pushed forward by groups and individuals who have lost loved ones or experienced traffic-related injuries themselves, and others who simply want the roads to be safer for vulnerable users. Some plans are more successful than others. Some get mired in politics and suburban-versus-urban tugs-of-war.

Montreal has embraced Vision Zero and introduced new safety measures, especially aimed at pedestrians, after 24 pedestrians died in crashes in 2019, up from a year earlier. It has also promised to report annually on progress, something countries such as France do. Toronto, which also supports Vision Zero, has seen an increase in pedestrian deaths as well, leading some city councillors to hand out fluorescent arm bands to seniors, something for which they were criticized because it implies the pedestrians are at fault, rather than drivers or road systems.

The underlying belief of Vision Zero and other safe road systems strategies is that humans make mistakes, but traffic networks should be designed so that no one — especially vulnerable road users — lose their lives because of it.

In December, Ottawa council approved a new road safety plan aimed at reducing traffic deaths and major injuries by 20 per cent. The 2020 budget includes more than $30 million for road safety programs and projects.

The plan came during a year in which there were high-profile cycling deaths in the city, including the cycling death in the Laurier Avenue bike lane near city hall, among other pedestrian and traffic deaths. In 2018, the most recent year for which statistics are available, 24 people died in crashes on Ottawa’s roads.

Critics said they didn’t understand why Ottawa’s plan didn’t go further and aim for zero deaths and injuries.

That philosophy includes that no road deaths or serious injuries are acceptable. It also includes the understanding that humans make mistakes and traffic systems should be designed so that no one loses their life because of it. A key part of Vision Zero and other safe road plans is lower speed limits, to 30 km/h in most urban areas.

Catherine McKenney, the city councillor representing Somerset Ward, is among those who have fought for the city to set zero as a goal for traffic safety deaths and injuries.

“The plan is a better plan than we have ever had in this city. It has a lot of elements that I am highly supportive of and it is moving in the right direction,” McKenney said.

“But the key piece missing is Vision Zero. Without that, we are accepting that road deaths are normalized, that they are OK,” said the councillor.

“Without establishing a goal of zero, it means that we don’t acknowledge that every single death on our roadway is preventable. And every single death is preventable.”

Ottawa, which has an in-city traffic death rate closer to that of Nordic countries than the Canadian average, has instituted many safe street policies and intends to do more as a result of the plan passed in December.

They include advance walk and cycling lights to help cyclists and pedestrians get across the street, or be more visible, before cars are allowed in the intersection. Ottawa has built a protected intersection at St. Laurent Boulevard and Donald Street which slows cars and shields cyclists using islands and protected cycling lanes, and is considering others. It has also built better pedestrian and cycling infrastructure in recent years, including footbridges over the canal and segregated bike lanes downtown.

The city has also lowered speed limits to 30 km/h in many neighbourhoods and added traffic-slowing measures such as speed bumps. Recently, after a year of construction, the rebuilt Elgin Street became the first arterial road in the city, and one of the first in the province to be designated — and designed for — 30 km/h.

A speed limit of 30, compared to the default residential speed of 50 km/h in Ontario, can have a huge impact on reducing injuries from car crashes, said McKenney, and is the default speed in parts of Europe which have contributed to reducing traffic injuries and deaths. The Stockholm Declaration, in which 140 countries including Canada vowed to cut road deaths and serious injuries by half over the next decade, calls for 30 km/h speed limits in all areas where vulnerable users and traffic freely mix. By that measure, Ottawa, and most Canadian cities, have a long way to go.

Having the speed limit designed in is crucial, said McKenney, who fought for the speed limit on Elgin Street, which also includes design aspects that will make the limit make sense — including smaller lanes, bump outs and speed bumps at intersections to slow traffic down.

The councillor, who is an avid cyclist, did not win the battle to have bike lanes included on the new Elgin Street, though.

The city is moving in the right direction, said McKenney, but not aggressively enough. The councillor is reminded daily of the cost of failing to make city streets safe enough.

Last May, a cyclist was struck and killed by a hit-and-run driver in a bike lane on Laurier Avenue West, just outside of city hall. In 2016, another cyclist, 23-year-old Nusrat​ Jahan, was crushed by a truck turning right as she crossed Lyon Street at Laurier in the Laurier Avenue bike lane. The driver was later acquitted of dangerous driving and the city has made changes so that vehicles stop behind cyclists in the lane when the light is red – aimed at improving visibility.

Since the segregated bike lanes were built on Laurier, the rate of bike crashes has decreased as use has increased, according to an audit done for the city. But the two recent deaths were alarming and underscored ongoing safety issues.

“When a cyclist is killed in a bike lane, there is an added amount of alarm and that is because we look to our municipalities, we look to our engineers to design space that is safe for people. It is like having a pedestrian killed on a sidewalk — that is supposed to be a safe space. We have to go back continually and ask what we can do better,” said McKenney.

While much of the public discussion around Vision Zero and safer streets in Canada has come from within cities, the highest death and injury rate from crashes are in the most rural parts of Canada.

According to 2017 numbers, for example, Yukon Territories had a traffic fatality rate of 18.2 per 100,000 population — compared to a national rate of 5.0 Canada-wide that year. The national rate rose to 5.2 fatalities per 100,000 in 2018.

Mark Wilson, a 58-year-old retired farmer and health and safety expert from Temiskaming Shores in Northern Ontario, is among those pushing for changes to make roads safer.

He has devoted much of his life over the past five years to studying and advocating for policy that would prevent “crossover” head-on crashes on undivided highways.

He has travelled to Sweden, Ireland and other countries, building research trips into personal vacations, to study designs that have dramatically reduced such collisions, adopting the Vision Zero premise that instead of road users alone being responsible for crashes, responsibility falls to those who design the road system.

Like many who live in the north, he knows firsthand the cost of a lack of action on the issue.

In 2011, his 16-year-old son, Dan, was one of two young men who died in a head-on crash on Highway 11 near New Liskeard while on their way to Tim Hortons with a group of friends. The car skidded during an April snow squall and collided with a transport truck heading in the other direction.

A 2+1 road — a low-cost innovation that converts roads to three lanes, with alternating passing lanes in each direction and a physical barrier down the centre — would have prevented the collision that killed his son. Many of the barriers used in such roads around the world are cable barriers, which are relatively inexpensive and easy to install — and prevent crossover collisions. Building 2+1 roads costs, on average, about one-quarter or one-third of the cost of twinning a highway (adding a separate, parallel road). 2+1 roads are about $1.5 to $2 million per kilometre compared with $7-8 million per kilometre for twinned roads.

Wilson knows his family is not alone in losing a loved one to a crossover crash. “I know a bunch of other people who have been affected.”

In fact, crossover collisions are responsible for a significant portion of all highway deaths in Canada. Research from British Columbia found that almost half of fatal highway crashes were crossover crashes. In Northern Ontario, which has a traffic death rate about double that of southern Ontario, safer road infrastructure would make a big difference.

Providing one passing lane on either side of the highway at all times and adding a physical barrier, such as an inexpensive cable barrier, significantly reduced such highway deaths in Sweden — by between 75 and 80 per cent. The system has been adopted elsewhere.

After years of advocacy, Wilson, who works with the local group Going the Extra Mile for Safety (GEMS), is optimistic there will be a pilot of the system on Highway 11 near New Liskeard soon. Another test of the system is in the works on Highway 50 east of Gatineau.

Graham Larkin became involved with traffic safety when he realized the roads in his Alta Vista neighbourhood were not safe enough for his young son to walk to school alone. The more he learned, the more he realized the issue of “road violence” was widespread and there were readily available solutions.

That was more than a decade ago. Today, Larkin is executive director of Vision Zero Canada, devoted to advocating for and informing people about solutions to end traffic deaths and injuries.

He is also executive director of Love 30 Canada which campaigns to make 30 km/h the default speed for all residential and urban streets, similar to practices in parts of Europe and the U.K. Research shows that pedestrian fatalities increase dramatically after 30 km/h.

Larkin, like other advocates, says Canada hasn’t gone far enough to institute changes that have been shown to reduce deaths and serious injuries.

It will require a paradigm shift to put the safety of pedestrians and vulnerable users first when it comes to road design, he said.

“It is not hard to see these traffic deaths are easily preventable. That is what is so frustrating.”

Larkin notes that right turns on red became common in North America only after the oil crisis in the 1970s as a means for motorists to save fuel. They were never introduced in Europe. They remain a common cause of pedestrian and cycling deaths, he said, and something that should be controlled through safer intersections or eliminated.

Standing near the intersection of Elgin and Laurier streets in Ottawa, near where a 60-year-old cyclist was killed almost a year ago, Larkin says the road remains dangerous for cyclists. After returning from a stint in Amsterdam, considered a haven for cycling, Larkin says he started cycling less in Ottawa. “I realized how relaxing it was there and how stressful it is here.”

Amid the frustration by those who study and push for safer streets, there is a glimmer of optimism that, despite prevailing doubts, things can, and eventually will, change.

“Is this doable in Canada?” asks Larkin, who has spent time studying safe road systems in the Netherlands and elsewhere.

“Yes, it is doable anywhere. The same principles apply. You often hear excuses made. We build excuses like the Dutch build infrastructure. They will just go ahead and fix things whereas we will tend too often to say, ‘Well, you know it can’t happen here.’”

Travis Croken, meanwhile, is hoping to highlight the fact that crashes like his and others — blips in a city’s traffic day — are both devastating and life-altering, as well as life-ending for too many.

He is planning to collaborate on a work of art that includes his bent bicycle tire and the names of cyclists killed and injured on Ottawa roads.

A key to reducing road deaths and injuries is engineering road systems that allow for people to make mistakes, but ensure no one pays for those mistakes with their lives. That is the philosophy behind Vision Zero, which originated in Sweden, and other successful safe road systems around the world.

Here are some of the solutions being used to cut road deaths and injuries.

In Canada, so-called crossover crashes, in which one vehicle crosses into a lane of oncoming traffic, are a major cause of traffic deaths. One British Columbia study found that nearly half of fatal highway crashes were crossover crashes. The study also found that the odds of a fatality are almost 50 times higher in a head-on crash than a same-direction crash.

Relatively inexpensive cable barriers between lanes of oncoming traffic have been used in the U.S. to reduce head-on crashes.

But in Sweden and elsewhere, the cable barriers are used as part of a road system — called 2+1 — that has dramatically reduced head-on collisions. The system lessened the number of fatalities and serious injuries by 50 per cent in Sweden.

2+1 roads have two lanes on one side and one lane on the other, which alternate. The lanes of opposing traffic are separated with a wire cable.

The solution is considered both effective and simple to implement, which is why a group from Temiskaming Shores in Northern Ontario has been pressing the Ontario government for a pilot project on nearby Highway 11.

Government officials and road safety experts recently met in Stockholm to draw a roadmap of how to improve global road safety over the next decade. The resulting Stockholm Declaration called for mandatory 30 km/h speed limits in urban areas “to prevent serious injuries and deaths to vulnerable road users when human errors occur.”

Why 30? Pedestrians have been shown to have a 90 per cent chance of survival when hit by a vehicle going 30 km/h, according to the World Health Organization. At 45 km/h, pedestrians have a less than 50 per cent chance of survival and that drops to virtually none when a pedestrian is hit by a vehicle travelling 80 km/h.

In Ottawa, some residential areas have been designated as 30 km/h and the recently completed Elgin Street is the first arterial in the city, and one of the first in the province, where the speed limit is 30. But on most Canadian roads — which unlike older parts of the world, tend to be straighter, wider and designed for higher speed — posting a lower speed limit isn’t enough. Streets must also be designed with permanent or temporary traffic calming measures, to make the speed limit feel right to drivers. That is beginning in Ottawa and elsewhere, but advocates say the country has a long way to go.

Intersections are where pedestrians, cyclists and other road users are the most vulnerable, as traffic crash statistics show. Safe road designs not only encourage safe driving speeds, but separate vehicles from vulnerable users in time and space. That means protected, separate lanes for cyclists as well as intersections designed to keep vehicles and vulnerable users from colliding.

In Sweden, intersections include many islands so pedestrians are usually not crossing more than one lane at a time. The City of Ottawa has begun building protected intersections which include safe road components. Those intersections include features such as painted bicycle crossings, concrete corner islands to segregate cyclists and pedestrians from turning vehicles, and dedicated bicycle signals. Because of their designs, the intersections slow drivers and give pedestrians and cyclists added protection.

Marie-Soleil Cloutier, who studies pedestrian safety at Quebec’s Institut national de la recherche scientifique, noted that Canadian cities have seen increases in pedestrian deaths in recent years, especially among the elderly. Having enough time to cross at a pedestrian light is often a factor for older pedestrians, and why officials are looking at expanding pedestrian crossing times, especially in areas close to schools and where seniors congregate and live.

Elizabeth Payne was the recipient of a traffic safety fellowship with the International Centre for Journalists.

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