After John Sweeney's death, proposals to deal with the danger of heavy trucks on city roads got significant public attention. Sweeney was one of several road casualties or near misses involving trucks that year but his young age and death in broad daylight made the tragedy particularly shocking. The Toronto Daily Star even published an artist’s conception of a ‘child-catcher’ to be affixed around truck wheels. The trucking industry appeared ready to act. The year was 1952.
Almost seven decades have passed since Sweeney’s death – more than enough time, especially given the many advances in technology, to solve the problem of a truck driver's poor view of the road, including blind spots, and the resulting danger from a massive vehicle. Yet, in the first weeks of this year, three Toronto residents have been killed by heavy trucks, while in 2018, two cyclists were killed within weeks of each other by trucks. In the period 2007-2017 in Toronto, there were 243 fatalities and serious injuries of road users in collisions involving trucks. The same tragedies occur each year across Canada and beyond our borders.
Sweeney was only 14 when he was killed in April 1952, bicycling home along Queen St. after stopping at city hall to pick up his annual bike licence (a requirement in place until 1956). After the truck passed, Sweeney looked back to make sure that his friend, who was following, was safe -- but when the driver later made a right turn, he ran over Sweeney. "The kids must have come from nowhere. I never saw them," the driver said.
In his 2012 road safety review, Ontario’s chief coroner found that in almost half of deaths involving trucks, the cyclist or pedestrian impacted the side of the truck, resulting in the person "being dragged, pinned or run over by the rear wheels." He recommended truck side-guards to prevent such deaths. After side-guards were made mandatory in the U.K., there was a 61-per-cent reduction in cycling deaths from side-impact collisions with trucks.
Transport Canada, responsible for safety standards for trucks, hasn’t shown any inclination to action -- content instead to raise doubts about the effectiveness of side-guards but without requiring alternatives, like electronic detection systems already in place on some cars or being developed for autonomous vehicles. These technologies, in conjunction with side-guards and better designed truck cabs that give a driver a better view of the road, are the way forward.
A recent Transport Canada report about truck safety simply surveyed available safety measures without recommendations or timeframes for implementation. The federal report concluded: "In time, benefits may be achieved by a properly developed electronic warning system capable of alerting drivers to the presence of vulnerable road users."
An inability by truck drivers to detect pedestrians and cyclists can't be used as an excuse. If average citizens with smart phones can monitor their homes from a great distance, why are our fellow residents still being crushed under truck wheels because the driver can't see them from a distance of a few metres?
Many cities no longer passively accept the casualty toll inflicted by trucks, instead delivering a simple message: fix the safety deficiencies on your vehicles or face restrictions on public roads. In London, England, trucks will be soon be banned from the city unless they meet safety criteria that ensure the driver has a good view of the road. In Brussels, Belgium, heavy trucks will be prohibited from the city centre where pedestrian and cycling traffic is high.
Last year, Toronto city council approved two studies – one about ‘protected’ intersections that improve a driver’s ability to see the road on right turns and the other about equipping city trucks with side-guards as is already the case in other cities. But more action is needed now.
Torontos 'community safety zones,' which provide for lower speeds and higher penalties for violations, should be expanded to include restrictions on trucks. For instance, trucks that aren't equipped with side-guards, lack collision avoidance systems, or limit the driver's view of the road should be prohibited or restricted during the hours of heavy foot and bicycle traffic. Where existing municipal authority falls short, the province should be eager to help -- after all, road safety is not a partisan issue.
Six decades after John Sweeney’s death, it's finally time to ensure that the life of a person walking or cycling home isn't cut short by a heavy truck.
Albert Koehl is a road safety advocate and founder of Bells on Bloor. He was on the expert panel of the Ontario coroner's 2012 pedestrian safety review. Michael Black is a founder of Walk Toronto.
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