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It is time for Toronto pedestrians to stand up for their rights

Jenna Morrison was 38 years with a five-year-old son and another child on the way when she was struck and killed by a truck while riding her bicycle one fall day in 2011. The incident at the corner of Sterling Road and Dundas Street West galvanized Toronto's cycling community. Throngs of cyclists joined a memorial ride through the streets of the city to mark the tragedy and call for better safety measures. They left a "ghost bike," painted all in white, at the place where Ms. Morrison was killed.

Cyclists have become a well-organized, outspoken and influential lobby in recent years. They fight for more bike lanes, more bike parking and safer streets. They make authorities wake up and take action. Pedestrians are not nearly as forceful. It is time they found their voice.

The number of people who are killed or injured by cars while walking city streets is shocking. Last year was the deadliest for pedestrians since 2003, with 43 killed, according to police figures. In one 24-hour period alone, 24 were hit by cars. Two-thirds of those who died last year were over 65 years old. This year up to Aug. 25, 17 have been killed, police say.

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As The Globe's Oliver Moore reported in June last year after investigating pedestrian deaths, "A total of 163 pedestrians, more people than can fit in a streetcar, have been killed since 2011. It's a toll that surpasses fatal shootings, yet generates a small fraction of the community concern and political reaction."

When someone is hit and killed by a car, we treat is as a routine matter, marked by a cursory report in the media. Last year's Year of the Car received nowhere near the attention of the Summer of the Gun in 2005, a year that saw 52 gun homicides.

One reason may be that pedestrians don't speak up. Cyclists have come to see themselves as a kind of tribe, acutely aware of their rights and ready to fight for them. They demand their place on the road. They make a big noise when something happens to one of their own.

Pedestrians don't see themselves the same way at all. They have no sense of solidarity. A fellow pedestrian is simply another person walking. You will often see a bike that bears a sticker demanding more bike lanes or warning drivers to share the road. You will never see a pedestrian with a T-shirt demanding the right to walk in safety. Pedestrians need to find their feet and fight for their lives.

Some, to their credit, are starting to organize. The Walk Toronto group, which meets monthly, campaigns for things such as reduced speed limits, better school safety zones, more safety cameras and more sidewalks on roads that lack them. Friends and Families for Safe Streets, founded by Walk Toronto, Cycle Toronto and other groups, lobbies governments and holds monthly vigils at City Hall. "Our members," it says, "are survivors of traffic collisions and friends and families whose loved ones have been killed or severely injured by careless drivers and dangerous conditions on Toronto's streets."

Belatedly, governments are starting to listen. Mayor John Tory has made cutting pedestrian deaths a priority. The city is increasing the number of red-light cameras and revamping hot-spot intersections to make them safer. City council has approved a plan that aims to cut road deaths and serious injuries to zero within five years. But there is much that pedestrian advocates could still do if they were more organized and more militant. They could start by fighting the pernicious myth that pedestrians themselves are to blame when they get hurt. Many drivers will tell you that distracted pedestrians who stare at their phones as they walk are a menace – and they can be. But, as The Globe's Mr. Moore found, the available research shows that use of electronic devices by pedestrians played a role in only a tiny percentage of fatalities. Distracted drivers, high speeds and poorly designed roads pose far more danger. Many pedestrians are hit when crossing broad arterial roads made for fast-moving cars, not people in foot.

It won't do to blame the victim. When the contest is between a hurtling heap of metal and a fragile human being, it is clear where the responsibility lies. That is just one of the arguments that pedestrians could make if, like the empowered loudmouths on bikes, they learned to stand up for themselves.

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About the Author
Toronto columnist

Marcus Gee is Toronto columnist for the Globe and Mail, Canada's national newspaper.Born in Toronto, he graduated from the University of British Columbia in 1979 with a degree in modern European history, then worked as a reporter for The Province, Vancouver's morning newspaper. More

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