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Opinion Toronto has a deadly traffic problem – and it’s time to change

At around 9:30 on the evening of Sept. 27, four people approached Warden Avenue, a broad, heavily used roadway in Scarborough. They were a family unit – father, mother, two young children – and they had just finished eating a late dinner of South Asian food at a restaurant a few steps away. The father held the smaller of the children in his arms. The mother took the older one, a girl, by the hand.

Security-camera video from nearby stores shows what happens next. They hesitate at the curb as two cars and a big transport truck rush by. Then the father makes a break for it. At a half run, he moves into the street. What looks like a plastic bag swings from one hand. The mother, wearing dark clothing, follows a step behind.

They make it most of the way across the five-lane street. They seem to be in the clear. Then a speeding car rushes out of the night, heading north. It strikes the mother and flings her into the opposite, southbound lane; the daughter, too. A southbound car runs over the mother's prone body. The father, who had reached the far curb just in time, runs frantically back and forth.

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The scene is so disturbing that media outlets that decided to post the video issued a warning to viewers and cut out the part that shows the collision and aftermath. The details deserve relating again here only because Toronto needs to start facing what is happening on its streets.

This particular incident stands out because of its dramatic nature: a mother and child struck down and killed, a family shattered, the whole thing captured on video. But the circumstances are not really exceptional at all. People are killed this way all the time. Toronto registered 43 pedestrian fatalities last year. Many of the deaths occur between intersections on big, wide suburban streets.

In Toronto's sprawling suburbs, it is common to see pedestrians bolt across streets such as Warden. Traffic lights and crosswalks are few and quite literally far between. These roads are designed to move cars, and move them fast. Pedestrians barely enter into the equation.

People making their way around on foot face a choice. If they want to cross to the opposite side of a big, arterial street, they can do one of two things. They can trudge down to a far-off light, wait for the signal to change, then walk back along the opposite side of the street. Or they can simply dash for it. Many will choose the direct route.

That, of course, can be terribly risky. The parents of young children should know better than to race across a street such as Warden after dark. That is one way of looking at it.

But it's too easy to blame incidents such as this on rash or reckless pedestrians. All the after-the-fact finger wagging in the world won't change the natural human tendency to choose the shortest route between A and B. Far wiser to consider why suburban streets such as Warden are so dangerous and try to make them safer.

This particular stretch of roadway is an accident waiting to happen. Warden runs north-south. The fatal collision happened near its intersection with the busy 401. Traffic is often fast and heavy. Locals say that even pulling on to the street in a car can be dangerous.

The car that hit the mother and daughter was heading up a slope that starts where Warden meets Ellesmere Road. Drivers going up that slope tend to floor it. Some reach 70 or 80 kilometres an hour – and faster – in a maximum 60-km/h zone.

It can be hard for them to see what is beyond the top of that slope. Pedestrians take their lives in their hands when they attempt a crossing. Yet they do, lots of them. Visiting this week, I saw two people and one group of three make the very same dash that the family did that night. They started just steps from the small shrine of stuffed toys and flowers that stood as a memorial to the tragedy.

Pedestrians have plenty of reasons to cross here. There are bus stops on either side. Strip malls line both sides of the street as well. People often cross between the restaurant where the family ate and the Hindu temple across the road.

Of course, pedestrians could do the sensible thing and walk to the crossing lights at Ellesmere or, in the other direction, at Lupin Drive, a small residential street. The trouble is that it takes about five minutes to walk down to either intersection, cross at the light and come back. Dashing across takes seconds.

The obvious fix in this case is to put in a new traffic light where the deaths happened. Locals have been calling for a pedestrian crossing and city officials are considering what to do. They plan to report back in the new year.

But a new traffic light here and there isn't the solution. What's needed is a much broader look at how to calm traffic and reduce pedestrian deaths on suburban avenues such as Warden. That means lower speed limits, better, more pedestrian-friendly intersections, even narrower, curvier roads. Once we start to see the roadways as a shared space instead of the exclusive preserve of the automobile and start to treat them as such, life on the streets should be safer all around.

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All of this will drive motorists mad. They already fight impossible traffic and are bound to resent any attempt to slow them down. If pedestrians try to sprint across a street such as Warden, some will say, what happens is their own fault.

That us-versus-them outlook helps no one. The way our streets are designed and managed, some people will always make that dash – just as they are making it today on Warden, weeks after a deadly collision. Blaming them won't change a thing.

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