by Lawrence Herzog

This feature originally appeared in Westworld Saskatchewan, CAA Saskatchewan’s magazine to its members.

It’s a scenario many drivers have experienced – and wish they hadn’t. Travelling in the right lane, you see a pedestrian preparing to cross the street, so you brake and come to a stop. But another vehicle, barrelling up the inside lane, doesn’t see or doesn’t care and roars past before you can warn the walker by honking your horn or rolling down your window to hand signal. Your heart in your throat, you shake your head, thankful the pedestrian wasn’t hit.

Not everyone is so fortunate. Every year in Saskatchewan, hundreds of pedestrians wind up on the losing end of an encounter with a vehicle. In 2002 (the most recent year for which verified figures are available), 17 pedestrians were killed and 329 were injured when hit by a vehicle on Saskatchewan’s roads. Between 1998 and 2002, 81 pedestrians lost their lives and 1,454 were injured in our province.

“We’re not making the progress we would like to make in reducing death and injury,” says Sgt. Brent Schmidt of the Regina Police Service. “Many of these incidents are caused by excessive speed or the driver and/or pedestrian not paying attention. In an ideal world, we would have the resources to more rigorously enforce the laws, but enforcement itself won’t solve the problem. There needs to be greater care taken by drivers and pedestrians.”

Cst. Malcolm Gibson, a collision reconstructionist with the Saskatoon Police Service, has heard the phrase “I didn’t see the pedestrian” far too many times in his 20-year career. “It’s one of the consistent components in our investigations,” he says. Not seeing the pedestrian was a factor when a bus ran over and seriously injured a three-year-old girl playing on a Saskatoon median in August 2003. And it was a factor last October when a vehicle crashed into and killed an elderly woman at an intersection near Regina’s Northgate Mall.

The law in Saskatchewan dictates that pedestrians have the right of way at crosswalks and intersections; when yielding to pedestrians, vehicles must stop before crosswalks, which are either painted on the road or considered to be extensions of the sidewalk. But drivers who hit pedestrians mid-block can also be charged if proper care and attention were absent.

The Saskatchewan Safety Council says that staying safe means paying attention at all times. “Drivers have to be more aware of what’s going on around them, not just what’s happening in front of them,” says Linda Saliken, the council’s communications co-ordinator. “It takes only a second of driver distraction for a pedestrian to step out onto the road.”

In an increasingly hectic and technologically advanced world, distraction behind the wheel and for those on foot has ratcheted up the hazard level. Between jaywalking, talking on cellphones, listening to headphones or conversing with companions, it sometimes seems pedestrians are doing everything but paying attention to the very real risk posed by traffic. And that’s a dangerous and potentially deadly state of mind, says Sgt. Schmidt. As well, the increasing popularity of inline skates and skateboards creates an even greater challenge for motorists, as skaters can go in a flash from being safely on the sidewalk to right out in front of traffic.

Visibility is vital when it comes to alerting drivers – both of the crossings and the pedestrians, says Shannon Ell, SGI’s supervisor of Traffic Safety Promotion. “As a pedestrian, you’ve got to be seen to be safe.” And making crosswalks safer has been a focus for traffic engineers in the past few years, with some North American cities now experimenting with flashing, in-pavement warning lights and fluorescent yellow-green signage. Tried-and-true crosswalk design elements, including pedestrian-activated amber flashing lights (red in Regina) and illuminated signs with overhead lighting, are also designed to warn drivers that a pedestrian is on the road.

“Our experience tells us that if pedestrians can see oncoming cars, and motorists can see the pedestrians and understand their intentions, the system works very well,” says Don Cook, traffic management engineer with the City of Saskatoon. “We look for solutions that don’t muck up traffic flows, so that pedestrians and vehicles can coexist in the safest way possible.”

Although wearing bright or light-coloured clothing or reflective strips, especially when walking at dusk or in darkness, can make a huge difference in pedestrian safety, so can knowing where, when and how to cross the road. “Drivers and pedestrians need to realize that every lane presents its own hazards,” SGI’s Ell says. “Crossing a four-lane road safely means getting across each lane safely, one lane at a time.” Pedestrians should also always cross at an intersection – not the middle of the road, she notes. And at intersections controlled by traffic lights, pedestrians must obey the “Walk” and “Don’t Walk” signals and cross at the beginning of a green-light sequence – not once the “Don’t Walk” signal begins to flash or the light has turned amber. Finally, pedestrians should never start crossing a street until they have given motorists sufficient time to stop, and only proceed when all traffic has come to a complete stop.

In turn, drivers must always watch out for pedestrians. In particular, they need to slow down on residential streets and in school and playground zones, where children may not be paying as close attention as they should. Between 1998 and 2002 in Saskatchewan, for example, 10 children were killed and 438 injured while walking on or next to a road.

Each year in Canada, pedestrian injuries claim the lives of 115 children and result in nearly 1,800 children and youths being hospitalized. (Most are between five and nine years old – an age group at greatest exposure to risk because of the time they spend on or near roads, either at play or on their way to and from school, and due to their inability to clearly discern and react to hazards.)

Research shows that children don’t develop the necessary skills to cross the roads safely until they are nine years of age. Safe Kids Canada reports that young children can’t see out of the corners of their eyes as well as adults can, nor can they use information from their peripheral field of vision. The directions of various sounds, such as sirens, are often difficult for children to determine because their sense of perception is different from that of adults. Children also lack a sense of vulnerability, and generally just don’t understand that a car can seriously hurt or kill them.

Parents or caregivers need to teach and reinforce proper techniques for crossing safely. It’s also a good idea to stress the importance of walking on the inside of the sidewalk or, where there are no sidewalks, on the left shoulder of the road, facing oncoming traffic.

Also, as the population ages, more seniors will be on the roads as pedestrians. And, as Saliken notes, older people generally take longer to cross and sometimes cannot see or hear oncoming traffic. “Both drivers and pedestrians need to be aware of these changes because, as our reflexes slow, we’ve got to be extra careful and give ourselves more time. Sometimes older people also miss visual or aural cues, so we’ve got to make sure the driver and pedestrian are both aware of each other,” she says. “Don’t assume the driver sees you and don’t assume the pedestrian sees your vehicle.”

“As a driver, although you may have the right of way, you’ve always got to be defensive,” Sgt. Schmidt concludes. “It’s a matter of anticipating what might happen and being aware of potential places where pedestrians can come out into your path.”

Pedestrian safety brochures – The Safest Route to School (A Guide for Parents), Parents Can Be Serious Traffic Hazards and Safe Walking Tips – are available from CAA Saskatchewan Communications (www.caasask.ca)

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