The mean streets

Halifax says road safety is a priority but pedestrian deaths and injuries are adding up

On a Saturday in July 2017 Denika Coakley got a call that chills any parent. A driver hit her three-year-old daughter Arionna in a crosswalk near the Sportsplex in Dartmouth. Coakley says this was the only time in her life that she had “the weak-in-the-knees feeling.” It took the caller about two minutes to say Arionna was going to be OK.
The collision affected the whole family. Denika, who describes herself as a relaxed person, is now more anxious. Arionna was hospitalized for two nights after the collision and saw a psychologist for a year afterwards. When she spotted pedestrians, she’d worry that drivers would hit them.
Denika’s oldest daughter, Maleigha, was there when it happened.

Afterwards, Maleigha would worry anytime Arionna got close to the road outside of the family’s home. “If a vehicle would drive by, she would rip her into the lawn and be like, ‘Don’t go out there,’” says Denika. “As much as it affected my daughter who got hit, it affected my oldest daughter the exact same amount, without the physical [injuries].”

Roughly every day and a half, a driver hits someone in Halifax Regional Municipality.

Halifax resident aspen apGaia [sic] is one of those people. He wears reflective stripes on his coat and backpack and carries a tiny flashlight with him at night that he points toward the ground with the pulsing mode on when crossing streets.

In the almost six years apGaia’s lived in the city, drivers have hit him at least 15 times. “All of them have happened because I’m a stubborn asshole because I’ve refused to fling my body out of the way of a car when it’s hurtling towards me,” he says. “If I had been a more reasonable person and recognized they’re a car and can do a lot of damage to me and I just simply gave up my rights, you know, waiting patiently for them to pass, then almost none of them would have happened.”

The reason why apGaia has allowed these collisions to occur is because of what he calls a “misguided” attempt to educate drivers to be aware of pedestrians and the rights they have.

Often when drivers hit him, they swear or make obscene gestures. “Those people, I don’t have any faith they’re going to change their behaviour,” he says. However, on some occasions, apGaia has seen a contrite look on the driver’s face, which he believes means they got the message.

On its website, the city has pedestrian-vehicle collision data covering 2012–17 that tallies collisions and fatalities. During this timeframe, the number of fatalities peaked in 2015 with five deaths. In 2018, there were four deaths and there were three deaths in the first eight months of 2019.

Taso Koutroulakis is the city’s manager of traffic management. “I think we are seeing progress, although the data to date is somewhat mixed,” he says. “We have up years and down years.”

Koutroulakis says some of the ways the city has improved pedestrian safety is through installing pedestrian bump-outs, curving curbs out into the street at crosswalks to cut the distance a pedestrian has to cross. You’ll see an example at the roundabout at North Park, Cunard and Agricola streets.

In eight locations in the city, such as the intersection at Mumford Road outside the Halifax Shopping Centre, workers have installed leading pedestrian intervals. This allows pedestrians to begin crossing before drivers get a green light. “By starting the pedestrian first at the intersection, it makes the pedestrian more visible to the driver,” says Koutroulakis.

At some crosswalks where there are overhead crosswalk lights, the city has installed side-mounted crosswalk lights. It did this because of the complaints that if there was a tall vehicle in front of a driver, such as a bus or a truck, drivers couldn’t see the overhead crosswalk lights.

The city also asked the province to reduce the default speed from 50 kilometres per hour to 40, but wasn’t successful, says Koutroulakis. He says the province said it would consider reducing the speed limit on local residential streets on a case-by-case basis. The city is currently working to determine the criteria.

Lower speeds improve the likelihood a pedestrian will survive a crash, but lower speed limits don’t necessarily mean drivers go slower. “Typically, motorists travel at a speed they’re comfortable travelling with,” says Koutroulakis. He says that’s why traffic calming measures are important; they force motorists to slow.

Jeannette Montufar is a Winnipeg-based pedestrian safety expert and the founder of MORR Transportation Consulting. She says 90% of road fatalities come down to human error, which mainly stem from distracted driving. Cell phones are drivers’ primary distraction. “What we can do as engineers or road safety professionals is design a system that as much as possible accounts for human behaviour, but we can never eliminate the human element,” says Montufar.

Education is another important factor but doesn’t take hold immediately. “If you want to educate an entire generation about something, say drinking and driving for example, it’s going to take at least one generation before it sinks in … I can’t launch a campaign on no drinking and driving today and expect a change in behaviour by next year,” says Montufar.

One of the things apGaia would like to see is more enforcement. “I don’t see uniformed police officers on the corner, writing tickets for failure to yield to pedestrians and if there’s no consequence for breaking the law and endangering the lives of pedestrians, then people will continue to do it,” he says.

Montufar says enforcement has a limited impact. She uses the example of drivers who are speeding and then see a police officer. The usual response is to slow down. “Enforcement is only effective within the vicinity and within the timeframe of when I am enforcing something,” she says.

Last summer, Halifax council adopted a goal of reducing fatal and injury collisions by 20% within five years. Koutroulakis says the city is committed to improving pedestrian safety. “From an engineering perspective, we’re doing our best to make improvements to the network to make it safer for pedestrians,” he says.

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