Dying while crossing the street: how to make Montreal and its surroundings safer?
A pedestrian crosses the street at the intersection where Mariia Legenkovska was fatally struck on December 13, 2022. Flowers were laid at the curb by passers-by.
Since the beginning of December in Quebec, cars, SUVs or trucks have mowed down at least eight pedestrians. One of the victims was only seven years old. These accidents rekindle the debate on the need to secure the streets and the slowness with which it is done… when it is done.
The fate of 7-year-old Mariia Legenkosvka has moved the whole country. With her mother, brother and sister, the little one had only been in Montreal for a few months, after fleeing the Russian invasion in Ukraine. But it was on the way to school, on the morning of December 13, that she died, the victim of a hit and run.
The Centre-Sud district, where the tragedy occurred, is just east of downtown Montreal.
The high frequency with which people lost their life, simply by crossing the street, has revived the debate on driver behavior and the pressing need for better design of the roadway and sidewalks. And, to do this, many experts and pressure groups have reiterated the importance of implementing traffic calming measures to make the streets safer.
At the intersection where Mariia Legenkovska was fatally mowed down, the City of Montreal installed, after the accident, bollards intended to narrow the roadway to encourage motorists to slow down.
For example, at the intersection where Mariia Legenkosvka was hit, the City of Montreal implemented, after the accident, measures to limit the flow and speed of vehicles.
Thus, the stop signs have been oversized, the roadway on rue Parthenais, narrowed by the installation of bollards at the intersections of rue de Rouen and rue Larivière, and the police presence, increased.
Other measures could be deployed in the weeks or months to come.
According to some experts, few streets in Montreal have been created with pedestrian safety as a priority. In some areas, roads have been laid out to facilitate car access to shops, with little regard for people who walk there.
It is the case of boulevard de la Concorde in the Pont-Viau sector, in Laval.
On December 3, shortly before 5 p.m., at dusk, a car fatally hit Eugenia Liautaud, 85, as she was crossing this busy boulevard on foot. This sociable lady, a fan of walking, reading and travelling, died at the scene of the accident. At this location, the road is wide, cars drive fast, there is no pedestrian crossing.
The intersection where Ms. Liautaud lost her life has no pedestrian crossing, despite the presence of a bus stop, an apartment building and a small shopping center nearby.
It should have been better configured, says the victim's son, Manes Liautaud. There is a bus stop and it's a busy place with a big parking lot, a small shopping center…
A few blocks away, on the evening of December 20, another 85-year-old pedestrian died while crossing Des Laurentides Boulevard, near Proulx Street.
The deaths of Pedestrians should no longer be treated as normal, says Sandrine Cabana-Degani, director of the organization Piétons Québec, which defends the rights of pedestrians. Throughout Quebec, people are dying on foot.
According to road design expert Paul Mackey, many of the problems relate to the way drivers behave on a road that tells them the wrong message. President of SafeStreet, a consulting firm that helps municipalities make their roads safer, Mr. Mackey explains that on a straight, wide street, motorists tend to drive faster. And they don't do it consciously, he says: it's psychological.
What should be remembered, according to him, is that the layout of the streets influences the behavior of drivers. Traffic calming measures should be used to encourage motorists to slow down and to make them more aware of their surroundings.
When the neighborhood is dense, residential and full of children, streets should be configured accordingly: narrow, with nearby safe spaces where children can play, and with speed bumps and other measures to slow traffic.
In the Netherlands, many streets are designed with the safety of pedestrians and cyclists in mind. In this area of Amsterdam, for example, the roadway has been delimited in such a way as to slow down traffic and in some streets cars are not allowed at all.
Paul Mackey, who once worked at the Ministry of Transport, had been made aware of this issue during a trip to the Netherlands in the 1980s. The Dutch are recognized for having been pioneers in the development of adapted infrastructures the needs of pedestrians and cyclists.
For two reasons, he explains: the Dutch don't build tall buildings because of the sandy soils that are theirs. Their neighborhoods are home to townhouses that take up public space. Therefore, the street plays an important role in civic life.
Under an idea that would seem outrageous in some neighborhoods of Montreal, many Dutch streets are purposely designed to be narrow, encouraging motorists to drive slowly and providing some safety for children.
Another consequence of sandy soils is that streets have to be resurfaced every five years, opening the door to bold urban redevelopments and experiments to slow car traffic.
In Montreal, the introduction of traffic calming measures tends to coincide with maintenance work, says Mackey. When the municipal administration breaks the pavement of a street to repair or renew its infrastructure, the workers extend the edge of the sidewalks and install speed bumps or protections for cyclists.
But, according to those advocating for safer streets, this process of redevelopment is happening too slowly. And it is often only after a fatal accident that the problems of a sector are taken into consideration.
In the neighborhood where little Mariia Legenkovska lost her life, residents say they have been calling for measures to make the streets safer for years.
It must be said that the appeasement measures traffic are expensive. Extending a sidewalk curb, for example, can cost anywhere from $30,000 to $100,000 per intersection.
These modifications aren't for everyone. Some city dwellers resent the fact that they sometimes lead to a reduction in the number of parking spaces.
But there's another factor affecting street safety, according to Paul Mackey: the number of large vehicles on our streets is on the rise. Vans, pick-up trucks and SUVs are among the best-selling vehicles in Quebec. As they are higher than cars, their drivers see pedestrians less well. And according to this road safety consultant, a pedestrian hit by a large vehicle is less likely to get away with it than if he had been hit by a car.
There is no simple solution to prevent accidents involving pedestrians, according to Pierro Hirsch, who once taught driving in Montreal and holds a doctorate in public health.
At no time should you drive at a speed that could kill a pedestrian in an area where you are likely to encounter them, he says.
But this argument does not arouse much interest in any community.
Manes Liautaud questions the responsibility of the driver involved in the accident which cost the life of his mother, in Laval. Officers said the 80-year-old driver did not see the pedestrian and the crash would not be criminally investigated.
Eugenia Liautaud, 85, was crossing a boulevard in Pont-Viau, Laval, when she was fatally struck at dusk by a vehicle.
The Service de police de Laval (SPAL) declined to comment because the investigation is ongoing. The City of Laval says it is analyzing the circumstances of the accident. If necessary, it will implement measures to better protect pedestrians in this sector.
But even when the streets are well laid out, accidents involving pedestrians still occur. In the Netherlands, 43 pedestrians lost their lives in 2021.
Even the most experienced driver can make a mistake, says Pierro Hirsch. Even with the best of amenities… It happens, but it’s rare. And if this happens often, it's because the layout has a flaw that needs to be corrected.
Adapted from a text by Matthew Lapierre of CBC by Anne Marie Lecomte
With information from CBC