Walking, cycling can be deadly

As more of us hike and bike, will death toll rise?

By: Jen Skerritt


Pedestrians and cyclists have long been a major part of traffic deaths and injuries, Winnipeg police say, and there's increasing cause for concern as more people take up walking or bike riding.

In the last 18 months, for instance, 29 people died on Winnipeg streets in car crashes, and 18 of them were pedestrians or cyclists.

Since 2007, 79 people have died on Winnipeg streets in vehicle collisions, including 36 pedestrians and cyclists.

So far this year, four pedestrians have been killed on Winnipeg roads. Of the 18 serious or fatal crashes that police investigated in 2011 to date, 11 involve pedestrians and two involve cyclists.

Active-transportation activist Anders Swanson said he's worried society has collectively forgotten these deaths are preventable and lowering vehicle speed and investing in better infrastructure can help prevent them.

He said governments spend millions of dollars on research to prevent deaths caused by disease, but comparably spend very little on preventing road crashes.

"Here you have this one cause of death, which is basically preventable, and we're not doing anything about it," Swanson said.

Sometimes, accidents happen at intersections or pedestrian corridors. Other times, pedestrians are jaywalking, intoxicated or not paying attention.

Most years, Winnipeg Police Patrol Sgt. Damian Turner said, between 20 and 25 people die on Winnipeg roads, and a substantial portion of those deaths are people who were crossing the street or cycling. According to the latest police data, 140 pedestrians and 79 cyclists were injured on Winnipeg roads in 2009. Police are still reviewing data from last year.

"We're concerned about the fact that pedestrians are being hit," Turner said. "It is common. We've known for a number of years that a significant proportion of the fatalities we're going to experience every year are going to be pedestrians."

Turner said he's seen cases where drivers do not see the pedestrian, including an instance on Portage Avenue where a bus driver did not see someone crossing. He also said he sees people every day who dart across the street after taking a quick look at the traffic and "just run for their lives." A number of pedestrian fatalities in the city's core area have involved intoxicated people, he said.

Unlike other cities, jaywalking is not illegal in Winnipeg so police do not hand out fines or tickets.

"Unfortunately, the only accountability is when they get smacked by a car and they're killed or severely injured," Turner said. "The result is that a driver who, a lot of the time is not at fault, suffers the trauma of knowing they've hit a pedestrian they really couldn't control."

Swanson, co-ordinator of One Green City, a volunteer project to create a network of safe cycling routes, said part of the problem is that the current road system was designed with cars in mind, not people, and it will take time and money to make streets safer. Last year, the city spent $24 million on bike-and-pedestrian upgrades to 35 routes. The overhaul was part of an infrastructure-stimulus program funded by all three levels of government.

Swanson said it's a good starting point, but there's still a long way to go.

"Since the car has caught on, we've invested almost exclusively on automobile infrastructure for decades. It's going to take a big investment to make things safer," he said.

High-volume intersections such as Portage and Main are designed to take pedestrians out of the mix, and the city keeps tabs on problem areas that may need a pedestrian crossing.

City road engineer Stephen Chapman said the city examines 10 years of collision data when concerns are raised about pedestrian safety.

The city looks at the volume of cars, the number of pedestrians and factors in any reported collisions to determine if engineering improvements could make the road safer.

While new roads are built with safety in mind, Chapman said Winnipeg has a lot of older areas that still need to be brought up to modern standards. Sometimes, he said, the city will put in a guard rail, widen a sidewalk, raise curbs and move a light stand back to address safety concerns.

"When you have a road that was designed years and years ago, it's older and may not meet certain standards," he said. "We try to bring it to those standards."

Chapman said in recent years the intersections prone to the highest number of pedestrian crashes -- including Portage Avenue and Langside Street and Osborne Street and Wardlaw Avenue-- have had lights replaced by half-signals facing just one, not both, of the roadways. Often, he said, the width of the road can make it more difficult for pedestrians to cross and the city needs to make it clear who has the right of way.

Widening the streets to make it safer for pedestrians is tricky in older areas of the city. Winnipeg has narrow, old roads and dated bridges that make seriation safety upgrades difficult.

"We're always working toward improving the pedestrian crossings in the city and concentrating our efforts on areas that are most problematic for collisions," he said.

But those upgrades have to be done within a limited budget.

This year, the traffic engineering improvement program -- which is responsible for intersection and road design improvements and pedestrian corridors -- will spend a total of $1.95 million. Chapman said the branch prioritizes projects according to need, and works within their annual budget to get things done and move other projects up the list.

While Chapman said the good news is the city is in the midst of major road upgrades -- including the Chief Peguis Trail extension -- due to partnerships with other levels of government, the city's infrastructure deficit is a daunting $3.8 billion.

Earlier this year, staff and parents from École River Heights asked council's public works committee for a pedestrian crossing at Elm Street, where students get off the bus. In the last eight years, five students have been taken to the hospital after a vehicle struck them.

The committee agreed to move the existing pedestrian corridor from Oak Street to Elm Street, but decided against overhead flashing lights to alert drivers a student is crossing.

Parent council chairman Rod Miller said the city told him the crossing doesn't meet the criteria to have flashing lights and 88 per cent of similarly requested projects are ahead on the city's list. Miller said he doesn't understand why the city will not take the extra step and eliminate any potential risk to students.

"It's frustrating from where I sit," he said. "If between now and the time the thing is done a kid gets hit and breaks a leg, what's the cost? $100,000, $200,000 minimum, versus a $32,000 installation. Where's the money better spent?"

Swanson said he would like to see citizens say "enough is enough" and demand Winnipeg strive for zero road fatalities. He said every Winnipegger needs to take responsibility and decide that people have the right to get from point A to point B safely.

"In an urban environment, I don't see any reason for people to die unnecessarily," Swanson said.


The numbers

2011: four deaths, (as of Aug. 2, 2011)

April 3: Redwood Avenue and Powers Street

April 13: Henderson Highway and Leighton Avenue

June 13: Main Street and Higgins Avenue

June 29: Pembina Highway and Dalhousie Drive (cyclist)

2010: 12 pedestrian deaths and two cyclist deaths

March 18: Taylor Avenue and Waverley Street

March 27: Main Street and Atlantic Avenue

April 11: Main Street and Machray Avenue

April 15: 1145 Dakota St.

June 17: Main Street and Jarvis Avenue (cyclist)

June 25: Manitoba Avenue and Charles Street (cyclist)

July 15: McPhillips Street and Templeton Avenue

Aug. 11: Portage Avenue and Raglan Road

Aug. 21: 1670 Portage Ave.

Oct. 25: Mountain Avenue and McGregor Street

Dec. 19: 446 Young St.

Dec. 20: Portage Avenue and Sherbrook Street

Dec. 23: McPhillips Street and Pacific Avenue

Dec. 24: Fife Street and Inkster Boulevard

2009: 1 cyclist death

July 4: Jefferson Avenue and Airlies Street (cyclist)

2008: six pedestrian deaths

Feb. 1: Kenaston Boulevard and Boulton Bay

Feb. 11: Grant Avenue and Lilac Street

June 7: Selkirk Avenue and Andrews Street

June 25: Donald Street and St. Mary Avenue

Sept. 26: Notre Dame Avenue and Spruce Street

Dec. 29: Isabel Street and Ross Avenue

2007: six pedestrians and three cyclists

March 23: Mountain Avenue and Kildarroch Street

May 23: McPhillips Street and Leila Avenue

July 24 - Burrows Avenue and McGregor Street (cyclist)

Sept. 14: St. Mary's Road and Oakleigh Place

Sept. 28: Redonda Street and Gunn Road (cyclist)

Oct. 31 - Warsaw Avenue and Harrow Street (cyclist)

Nov. 6: Inkster Boulevard and Sinclair Street

Nov. 13: 1395 Grant Ave.

Dec. 6: Kenaston Boulevard and Sterling Lyon Parkway

-- Source: Winnipeg Police Service