“We are terrible, to be very honest, in terms of our road sharing,” said Asan Habib.
Habib is a Dal prof who was hosting the Crosswalk Safety Information Café Wednesday, a chance for the Dalhousie Transportation Collaboratory (DalTRAC) and the HRM Crosswalk Safety Advisory Committee to meet with city employees and the public to talk about crosswalk plans and crosswalk safety.
In the ubiquitous “cafe” style of such events, participants circulated between discussion groups, exchanging ideas on developments in the three “E”s – Engineering, Enforcement and Education.
Addressing road safety, Habib said, starts with providing opportunities “to know what’s going on, what’s being improved the engineers, by the planners, the police, those kinds of things.”
Only eight percent of commuters are pedestrians, he said, and only one percent are cyclists. But those figures are province-wide. Census figures show that in 2006 up to 35 percent of people living on the peninsula commute via “active transportation” (walking or biking), while another 18 percent use transit, which usually involves at least some walking to and from bus stops. The city’s Regional Plan hopes to bump those figures up to 37 and 21 percent, respectively, by 2026.
A recent report released by the Halifax Regional Police and RCMP, shows that 60 percent of pedestrian-vehicle collisions occur at crosswalks, which exist at every intersection whether they’re marked or not.
Within these “invisible lines,” said Habib, pedestrians are vulnerable.
Despite treacherous winter weather conditions, attempts are being made to improve the safety of crosswalks.
The first of these is a better reporting system for accidents. Before the summer of 2014, Halifax police reported accidents on a form called the 58A. The data was then manually put into a spreadsheet. Police have now switched to software called the Collision Reporting and Occurrence Management System. Tracking accidents electronically makes analyzing data on collisions easier.
The system, said Sergeant Steve Calder, allows police to track whether or not they’re having any impact on road safety in a given area, allowing them to deploy resources more effectively.
If an officer is not having an impact, says Calder, that officer can now be told, “you’re not doing anything that’s changing the safety of driving in Halifax — you’re writing tickets, we don’t have problems here. In the past I had no way of knowing whether or not he was serving any purpose.”
Based on the information they’ve collected so far, said Calder, there’s not much to suggest that accidents are directly the result of planning issues. That’s a remarkable assertion, and contradicts the view of pedestrian advocates and planners themselves, who have made pedestrian-friendly design the centre-piece of urban plans like HRM By Design.
In fact, engineering changes are in the works, pointed out Traffic Services Supervisor Roddy MacIntyre. These include adjustments to pedestrian activated overhead crosswalk signs – a type of crosswalk called the RA-5 – to make the signs more visible; placing zebra stripes at more unmarked crosswalks; lengthening the time allowed for people to cross from an estimation of 1.2 metres per second to 1 metre per second; and moving crosswalk poles where they obstruct drivers’ view of pedestrians.
Yet even with all of these changes, it’s unclear that crosswalk safety is something that can be effectively engineered, said Tanya Davis, Senior Traffic Operations Engineer with HRM. “There’s no silver bullet. Sometimes more bells and whistles aren’t better.”
For Taso Koutroulakis, Manager of Traffic and Right-of-Way services for the city, fitting together the pieces in the puzzle of crosswalk safety is challenging, not least because patterns of accidents form not around geographical locations, but times in the daily and yearly schedule.
Forty percent of accidents occur between 3pm and 8pm, for example, and the rate of accidents peaks at the changing of the clocks in the Fall.
Responding to this, he said, is less about engineering than enforcement and education. But educating people – and tracking the causes of accidents — are difficult when the reason for collisions is because people aren’t paying attention in the first place.
“Intuitively I think the number one reason for collisions is distraction and that’s difficult to capture,” he said.
Recent campaigns, such as “Heads Up Halifax” have largely placed the onus on pedestrians to ensure the safe use of shared road spaces. Yet statistics cited throughout the course of the event – such as 45 percent of collisions are caused by driver error alone – suggest that any attempt to address safety will require all road users committing equally to the process.
“Safe sharing of the road is a shared responsibility,” said Habib. ‘We all need to work on it.”