Montreal pedestrian deaths death

The aftermath of a pedestrian death in Parc Ex, Feb. 16, 2021

Why do we tolerate so many pedestrian deaths in Montreal?

“How much tragedy is random and how much have we learned to tolerate? I can’t help but notice that far too many lives have been lost recently in senseless road accidents.”

Last week, I found myself on Nuns’ Island, and walked right by a makeshift memorial for the 29-year-old woman killed by a big-rig truck while attempting to cross Place du Commerce on Dec. 5. I once had an office on Nuns’ Island and used to cross that street daily. It saddened me to cross it last Friday, knowing that a young woman had lost her life in a tragic accident only days ago.

“I heard she was an educator at a nearby school,” my friend who works in the area told me when I saw her later that day. She had her entire life in front of her — dreams, a future, family and friends who no doubt loved her, and from one minute to the next, she was gone. Just like that. 

Nuns’ Island has a strict minimum of traffic lights (by design) and so traffic flow is mostly controlled via stop signs and roundabouts. While a busy street, Place du Commerce allows for high visibility and few surprises. You can see cars coming from a solid distance. I couldn’t wrap my head around the circumstances of this tragic accident, most likely the result of momentary distractions from both the driver and the pedestrian. 

“If only one of them had taken one more cautionary, secondary glance before crossing or pressing on that gas pedal,” I thought, “maybe a death could have been prevented.” Perhaps…. We’ll never know. There are always a lot of ‘should have, could have’s’ uttered when bad things happen. So much of life is utterly random, and often tragedy can strike without a person bearing blame. By all accounts, and from what I’ve heard, the driver had stopped at the stop sign. They are not at fault. But a life was lost, nevertheless. 

Back-to-back road fatalities

But how much tragedy is random and how much have we learned to tolerate? I can’t help but notice that far too many lives have been lost recently in senseless road accidents. 

This past week, only days after that young woman was crushed to death by a truck, two seniors, a pedestrian and a cyclist, were fighting for their lives following traffic collisions that occurred an hour apart on the island of Montreal.

The first victim, an 88-year-old pedestrian, suffered serious injuries when she was hit at the corner of Jean-Talon and Hutchison in Parc Ex. 

The woman was taken to hospital, but later died of her injuries. 

Barely an hour later, a cyclist in his 70’s was struck in Montreal East. The cyclist suffered serious upper body injuries and was taken to hospital in critical condition. He survived, but imagine the weeks, months, perhaps even years of physiotherapy he’ll be dealing with to bounce back — if he ever fully does, at that age.  

These are just the latest in a long string of serious road accidents involving pedestrians in Montreal. In the past two weeks, at least seven people have lost their lives in fatal collisions, among them four seniors.

The day before the fatal accident on Nuns’ Island, a 61-year-old man and a 37-year-old woman died 90 minutes apart in two separate collisions in Laval. The man was declared dead on the scene of the accident while the woman died from her injuries later at the hospital. There are people currently mourning these anonymous-to-us casualties, people who will be dealing with their absence around the holiday table and for years to come.

Easy dismissal of driver responsibility 

When I commented about these accidents online, what I found most disconcerting was many people’s immediate reaction to point to pedestrians as sharing most of or equal blame in road accidents that predominantly cause them serious harm.  

“They were wearing headphones or AirPods while crossing the street,” a few commented. “They were probably on their phone, so many of them wear all black and are hard to see, they should wear reflective clothing. They should be more vigilant.”

All of this can be true. I’m not saying pedestrians and cyclists are blameless. They also need to follow the highway safety code and remain aware of their surroundings, both for their own safety and for everyone else’s around them. Too often, they can be careless or take unnecessary risks. 

But at the end of the day, a vehicle is a deadly weapon. The average SUV weighs well over 3,000 pounds. It has far more power to injure, maim and ultimately kill. It does so daily. And in the past two weeks in Montreal, these fatal accidents involving pedestrians and cyclists have reminded us of how unequal that co-existence on the roads really is. A careless pedestrian probably won’t kill anyone – other than themselves. A careless driver can easily kill, and often does.

Even sadder to me, many of these victims were seniors — people whose eyesight or hearing may be compromised, people who may need a few more minutes to cross the road safely, people who are much more vulnerable on the street and require our patience.

Deadly past few years on Quebec roads

For the past few years, CAA-Quebec has expressed concern over the rising pedestrian death toll in the province. The SAAQ recorded 70 pedestrian deaths in 2018, 75 in 2017, 60 in 2016 and 44 in 2015. 

In 2021, the SAAQ found that 347 people died on Quebec’s roads and highways, and that 137 of those fatalities involved road users described as “vulnerable.” That means pedestrians, in particular children, older adults, disabled people, cyclists and motorcyclists. According to the Canadian Press, “2021 was a deadly year for pedestrians, cyclists, motorcyclists in Quebec.” Based on the latest stats, I don’t think 2022 will be much better. 

Those fatalities consistently and by far exceed the number of people who die from gun-related violence every year, yet attention allocated to the latter victims somehow far outweigh those killed by cars on our roads. Gun-related violence (justifiably) shocks us, but, unless it involves a child, it’s as if we’ve become conditioned to road fatalities as a society; as if they’re somehow considered an unavoidable price to pay for us to use the roads, like some sort of unfortunate collateral damage. We shouldn’t get used to them, and we should want better. 

Car culture creates entitlement 

Research I recently read seems to point to pandemic isolation as having created more selfishness and self-absorbed behaviour in all of us. People are exhibiting far less patience and courtesy, and far more irritability. I certainly see that online. While an interesting theory, I’m not convinced these recent road accidents and driving behaviour have much to do with isolation-induced behavioural changes. 

Rather, I believe the problem lies elsewhere. I read a fascinating piece earlier this year in The Guardian about how car culture has “colonized our thinking and our language,” forcing us to think about things solely from a driver’s perspective.

“Why do we talk about traffic accidents?” the author asks. “As if the one cyclist who runs down and kills a pedestrian – which hardly ever happens – were part of the same system that kills people day in, day out, which nearly always involves cars.”

The article points fingers at car culture and the awful entitlement that often comes with it, creating drivers who are often resentful of anyone else sharing the same space as them and possibly delaying them or inconveniencing them in any way. 

How else to explain the unreasonable anger and irritability so many drivers often exhibit at basic and often very necessary speed-calming measures like raising crosswalks, adding speed bumps and more pedestrian lights, or physically reducing road speeds, all aimed at better equitably sharing the road? Whenever municipal administrations express the political will to modify and improve existing infrastructure to find solutions that will meet everyone’s safe mobility needs and make walking or cycling for seniors, children and those with mobility issues safer, the outcry and complaining is deafening.

Zero Vision in Montreal far from a reality 

Since 2019, the city of Montreal has invested millions to include more pedestrian lights and improved cross times. Its Vision Zero campaign aims to have zero deaths and zero serious injuries on its roads by 2040. The way we’re going, I don’t see that happening. Far too many people continue to get injured daily by collisions and far too many needless deaths continue to occur. But I think it’s a worthy goal and any investments and efforts towards harm reduction are laudable. 

The reasons, or so-called ‘explanations,’ for continued road accidents vary. Some say drivers are often distracted by vehicle technology, infrastructure isn’t good enough and many blame recklessness by drivers and distracted pedestrians. Driver etiquette is also seriously lacking, with crosswalks often seen as a mere suggestion by many Quebec drivers instead of a mandatory stop. How many times have I placed my foot down on a crosswalk only to see an unbothered driver just whiz by? 

As a long-time driver and a current user of public transit who walks and bikes a lot, I know accidents can be caused by both groups. And even though far more of the responsibility should be with the group that can cause far more bodily harm, it’s not about pointing fingers. No one wants to get hurt and no one wants to be responsible for hurting someone. 

Getting to your destination five minutes earlier really isn’t worth the risk. We need to coexist and share the roads better by respecting the speed limits, putting down our cell phones, crossing streets at the appropriate intersections and pedestrian crossings, and — with snow fast approaching — constantly being vigilant around heavy vehicles and snow-clearing equipment, which also kill far too many pedestrians every winter season. 

It’s not because these are road violations and punishable with a ticket or a possible fine, but because a few extra seconds of vigilance and courtesy could save your life or someone else’s. That alone should be reason enough. 

PS. While finalizing this column, I read the sad news that a young girl was critically injured in what appears to be a hit-and-run early Tuesday morning in the borough of Ville-Marie. It’s being referred to by media as a “collision between a car and a pedestrian.” Call it what it is: A girl was mowed down by a careless driver. I truly hope she survives. 

[UPDATE: Unfortunately the seven-year-old girl involved in the hit-and-run this morning died of her injuries this afternoon.] ■

Read more weekly editorial columns by Toula Drimonis here.