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Downtown Eastside drivers forced to compensate for careless pedestrians

It has been nearly 20 years since I've been stopped by police for a driving infraction. The last time it happened, I was riding a two-stroke motorcycle that sounded like a poorly tuned chainsaw – the kind of machine that tends to draw the attention of police. I was heading east on Cordova Street. The officer hit his lights just as I crossed Columbia in the Downtown Eastside.

In truth, I wasn't going that fast – 60 kilometres an hour, tops – certainly nothing out of the ordinary for city traffic, which is why I was surprised to be pulled over.

Rather than writing me a ticket, the officer let me off with a stern warning about the perils of driving through the Downtown Eastside. He began by telling me, "You should know better than to drive through this neighbourhood like that." He told me that pedestrians had a habit of falling off the curb into traffic, and that I had to be ready to brake. "Slow down," he said. "This is not like other neighbourhoods."

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It's a lecture that comes back to me every time I drive through the neighbourhood. It's changed the way I drive in that part of the city.

In two decades, some things have changed in the Downtown Eastside, but you are as likely as ever to encounter a person darting across the road, stumbling off a curb, ignoring pedestrian signals, or simply walking with their back turned to traffic.

After two more pedestrian deaths in the neighbourhood – bringing the citywide total to nine this year – city council has responded by lowering the speed limit to 30 km/h along that stretch of Hastings Street.

Cue the predictable outrage on the comment boards and open-line radio shows that can be aggregated into a single question: "Why should I have to slow down because of a bunch of drunks or drug-addled zombies who haven't learned the basic childhood lessons of crossing on a green light or looking both ways before they cross the street?"

The answer is that as frustrating as the lower limit may be for some drivers, you could save someone's life.

Drug addiction, alcohol abuse, mental illness and all of the accompanying abhorrent behaviours are a fact of life in the neighbourhood. They are most plainly on display in the two blocks between Columbia and Main streets.

There is no sign of that changing anytime soon. Fixing the problem is complicated and expensive, and so far there hasn't been the political will at any level of government to push it to the top of the agenda.

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A short experiment that saw police issue jay-walking tickets didn't work and only fuelled neighbourhood complaints that police were waging a war on poor people who couldn't possibly afford to pay the fines.

In short, people are going to continue wandering on to the street with little or no regard for their personal safety.

As well as lowering the speed limit, the city is looking at other measures: a mid-block crosswalk, hiring people from the neighbourhood to work as crossing guards, installing more countdown lights.

Not to prejudge the efforts of the city, but if the complaint is that pedestrians aren't paying attention to traffic signals or intersections now, why would they suddenly start paying attention to countdown lights or using a mid-block crosswalk? And would the same people seek out the person in the reflective vest to help them cross the street? I'm guessing, not likely.

Asked about enforcing the lower speed limit, Vancouver city Councillor Heather Deal said the city will first concentrate on public education. "The police tend to be around there more frequently so they can watch for that, but it's as much an awareness technique as anything else. You put big signs up that say, 'Go slower; people are walking here.' " The city is spending $150,000 on a public education program, but Ms. Deal says there has been no money set aside for additional police enforcement.

I don't think what has drivers upset is the lower speed limit – they somehow manage in school zones, around parks and playgrounds, and on bike routes. Instead, it's the fact that drivers are being asked to alter their behaviour because the city is unable to get to the root of the problem.

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Putting the onus on drivers may prevent serious injuries, it may even save lives, but it treats only the symptom – and it feels like we've given up.

Stephen Quinn is the host of On the Coast on CBC Radio One in Vancouver, 690 AM and 88.1 FM.

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