On being … blamed?

By Ingrid Sapona

Toronto’s crime rate is low and most who live here would agree that the city is safe. But, the number of pedestrian deaths on city streets is of concern to many. In a November 24th article, the Toronto Star reported that 34 pedestrians have been killed on city streets (so far) and the CBC recently reported that more than 1,100 pedestrians have been hit in Toronto in 2019 (again, as of late November). 

Just under one-third of pedestrian deaths this year have been seniors. So, last week a city councilor organized a pedestrian safety event at a mall in her ward. At the event, Toronto police offered safety tips and handed out reflective arm bands for seniors to wear when they’re out and about.

When I heard about the arm bands, I thought “great”. I’m a big fan of reflective strips on clothing and other items. A few years ago, I started noticing the ways sports clothing makers creatively incorporate it into things like their logos and on the edges of garments. Reflective strips are now even used on dog collars and dog sweaters. I’m grateful every time my car lights cause a reflection that helps me see a dog or something that I otherwise might not have seen.

The day after the pedestrian safety event there was a tremendous backlash against the police and the councilor who organized it. A number of critics – so-called safe-street advocates – said that giving out the armbands puts the onus on pedestrians and amounts to “blaming the victim”. The critics said the police should be focusing on dangerous drivers instead.

By way of background, I should explain that another big news story this month was a request by Toronto’s police chief for an extra $1 million to put additional officers on traffic enforcement. This request came after the release of eye-popping, albeit not particularly surprising, statistics. Seems that since 2013, when the city stopped having dedicated traffic enforcement squads, the number of tickets issued dropped nearly 50% while the number of collisions in the city have steadily risen.

I don’t think anyone disagrees that Toronto streets are not as safe as they should be. And, there’s a lot of differences of opinion in terms of what to do to improve road safety. But the complaints and accusations about the police wasting their time or supposedly singling out walkers is ridiculous. Toronto has a real problem with road safety, but neither the responsibility for safety, nor the fault for behavior that creates dangerous conditions, lies with one group. The onus is on each of us to look out for our own safety and to behave in ways that aid in making our streets safe. Indeed, I daresay that outlook is what motivated the seniors to attend the safety session.

If we follow the critics’ logic, does that mean we should no longer teach kids to look both ways before crossing the street? Or what about the idea that if you’re walking on the shoulder of the road you should be on the side facing oncoming traffic and you should walk single file. (Of course, I can understand not teaching kids the racist rhyme we learned to remember that strategy, but shouldn’t we still teach that advice??)

If anything, I think there’s more behavior we should be telling pedestrians to avoid to stay safe on the streets. If there were mobile devices when I was a kid, I’m sure I’d have been told not to be looking down at the device as I cross the street, or not to get so caught up in listening to something that I don’t hear cars and bike riders ringing their bells.

I imagine that when the police give talks to groups, they focus on advice they think might be most relevant to those in the audience. Assuming that’s the case, it’s clear the police figured walking and texting isn’t much of an issue with seniors, but making sure they’re seen in the dark is. I don’t think that’s unreasonable, do you? Apparently, at the session the police also reminded seniors of another defensive walking tactic I observe religiously: make eye contact with drivers before walking out in front of them. Mind you, it’s getting harder to do that because so many cars have darkened windows. (Personally, I think darkened car windows ought to be illegal for just that reason.)

Why would encouraging people to take personal responsibility be something others criticize? And how is that victim blaming? The folks attending the safety event were not victims – they were there because they want to avoid becoming victims.

The only victims I see in all this were the event organizers and participants who were unfairly dumped on by critics who seem to think drivers and others on the road owe them something and who are offended when reminded of their role in reducing risk.

© 2019 Ingrid Sapona


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