On a quiet, sunny Friday morning in September 2012, Jodi Derkson got up early to take her dog for a walk. The founder of Imperative Education, which offers antibullying strategies, saw a vehicle halted at a stop sign before she went to cross a street near her East Vancouver home. She wasn’t expecting her life to take a drastic turn the next instant.
“There was a car facing me at the stop sign, and since she was stopped, I figured it was safe to go,” Derkson tells the Georgia Straight. “Suddenly, I felt a car—an SUV—hit my leg and take me down.…I tried standing but my leg slipped out from under me.”
In hospital, Derkson learned she’d sustained a fracture in her tibial plateau, by the knee, meaning her alignment, stability, and motion were all severely affected. The injury puts her at increased risk of osteoarthritis, and she’s still struggling with the incident’s emotional impact.
“I was on crutches for two months; I’ve been in rehabilitation ever since. My back hurts at times, I needed my teeth fixed, and I am dealing with fear,” Derkson says. “Now when I cross any street, I simply do not trust that drivers will stop. It is scary.”
Derkson is one of the approximately 2,300 pedestrians in B.C. who are injured by cars every year. According to the City of Vancouver’s 2012 Pedestrian Safety Study, the annual pedestrian collision rate has been steadily declining since 1996.
Statistics from the Vancouver Police Department indicate that the number of pedestrians being killed by cars is also on a downward trend. But pedestrian activists say that these figures don’t give an accurate picture of what’s happening on our roads.
“There are fewer dying not because drivers are behaving better but because we have better critical care,” says Bev Ballantyne, cofounder of a group called Putting Pedestrians First, in a phone interview. “They end up either quadriplegic, paraplegic, or have serious head injuries, but we never hear about that.”
Political-science professor Anthony Perl, director of the urban-studies program at Simon Fraser University, says that the provincial push to build more roads encourages people from the suburbs to drive into Vancouver instead of taking public transit, while within the city itself, more people are travelling by foot or bike. According to him, it’s a deadly combination.
“When people start getting mowed down regularly, it’s an alarm bell,” Perl says in a phone interview. “There should be a red light blinking somewhere on the city’s planning, traffic, and transportation departments and on city council that there’s a problem here and we need to do more about it. Otherwise, there’s going to be more carnage.”
According to the VPD, nine pedestrians were fatally struck by vehicles in 2011, compared to 14 in 2007 and 20 in 2005. Certain spots in the city are especially dangerous. Based on car-pedestrian incidents between 2008 and 2012, ICBC identified the five worst intersections as Main and East Hastings streets, Commercial Drive and East Broadway, Main and Terminal Avenue, Nanaimo Street and East Broadway, and Burrard and Davie streets. (The speed limit on a section of Hastings near Main was reduced to 30 kilometres per hour in 2011 in response to so many fatalities in the area.)
The VPD’s PedWatch website states that the actions of pedestrians themselves were the primary causal factor in about half of the incidents reported to police between 2005 and 2009.
“It is imperative that pedestrians realize their actions may be putting them at risk,” the site says.
Ballantyne doesn’t buy it, saying that the 50-percent figure is a “blatant lie”. She blames pedestrian hits on two factors: lack of enforcement and driver attitude.
“Until the penalties are increased, until they actually mean something, education is a waste of time,” Ballantyne says. “What makes a difference is penalties. In certain countries in Europe, if you’re stopped for a traffic violation, the cop pulls up your income tax and you’re fined based on your income. A $100 ticket doesn’t make a difference. Someone driving an Escalade can chalk up a whole bunch of $100 tickets. But if you charge him $10,000, it might change his behaviours.”
Another reason pedestrians end up getting struck, she says, is drivers’ sense of entitlement.
“Drivers are bullies, and they are encased in metal,” she says. “They’re saying, ‘I’m big; I can run you over, and you’d better stay out of my way.’ That’s their mentality. They think their mission is paramount and somehow people who walk have less status in the world, so whatever we’re doing is way less important than whatever they’re doing.”
Ballantyne and Perl both say they applaud the City of Vancouver for improving infrastructure for cyclists and pedestrians but that there’s still much more to be done to keep them safe.
“We need to think about best practices and look to places like Portland [Oregon], by expanding infrastructure for pedestrians and cyclists and making sure relationships between them and between them and cars are carefully managed,” Perl says. “I still feel Vancouver needs a pedestrian advocate. There still isn’t a point person to be the focus for that. It would help the ‘feet first’ strategy to succeed because they’d be at the table.”
PedWatch advises pedestrians to use designated crosswalks, obey traffic signals, make eye contact with approaching drivers and cyclists, and never assume drivers see you. It urges drivers to make eye contact as well, to yield to pedestrians on the roadway, to watch for pedestrians at intersections (especially when making left and right turns), and to obey traffic signals.
Derkson, meanwhile, just wishes that drivers would do a couple of things differently. “Stop at the stop sign, not two feet past it,” she says. “When someone is walking in front of your car, brake. Do not simply roll slowly until they cross. Having been hit by a car, I cannot tell you how petrifying that is to me now.”