There’s finally a good way to reduce texting-while-driving. What are we waiting for?

The Acusensus ‘Heads-Up” camera. Click image for source (Premier’s Design Awards, Victoria, Australia).

The scourge of distracted driving in Canada

Fatal collisions are on the rise in Canada, and compared to peer countries we are not doing well. In data drawn from the latest WHO reports, Canada has slipped from 28th to 31st place in the global rankings of per capita, per annum traffic deaths. In those same rankings we are likewise far behind countries with similar economies and climates in the number of fatalities per billion kilometers driven. That rate is 3.0 deaths for Norway, 3.8 for Sweden, and 5.1 for Canada. According to the latest (and late, 2018) numbers from Transport Canada, annual motor-vehicle-related fatalities are up 3.6% from the year before, to a rate of 5.2 deaths per million population.

How can roads be getting less safe for Canadians, at a time when when vehicle crashworthiness is progressing in leaps and bounds? One commonly-cited reason is the incidence of distracted driving behaviours threatening the life and limb of drivers and everyone around them.

Distraction can mean many things Continue reading

Open Letter to the Honourable Marc Garneau

Minister of Transport
House of Commons
Ottawa, ON
K1A 0A6


February 25, 2020


Dear Minister Garneau:

Re: Stockholm Declaration and immediate actions needed to improve road safety outcomes in Canada.

We are writing you today as concerned road safety professionals and researchers regarding road safety in Canada. At the third Global Ministerial Conference on Road Safety held in Stockholm this month, a new declaration on road safety was endorsed to halve fatalities and injuries by 2030.1

We wish to draw to your attention the fact that Canada ranks sixteenth in international road safety performance, with best performing countries such as Norway having less than one-half the road fatalities of Canada. If Canada were to achieve the road fatality rate of Norway, we would save over one thousand lives every year. Best performing countries have not always had good safety performance but enjoy good performance because they have given road safety the priority it needs.

In contrast, the Canadian approach to road safety has not been sufficient to provide Canada with the lowest possible levels of road trauma. Continue reading

Open letter to Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson in wake of the Westboro bus crash

On the evening of January 11, 2019 an OC Transpo bus crashed into a shelter. An  overhang tore through the upper deck of the bus, killing three passengers and maiming many more. This tragic incident had troubling similarities with the September 2013 incident, when a train tore off the front of an OC Transpo double decker. In both cases passengers were flung from the vehicle to the ground below.

Three days after the crash a number of us, including many families affected by the Humboldt Broncos bus catastrophe, penned this letter urging Ottawa Mayor Jim Watson to invite the Transportation Safety Board of Canada to aid local police with the investigations, and urging Transport Canada to take a serious interest in road safety. Continue reading

Some lessons for Saskatoon … and every Canadian city

Yet another Canadian city — Saskatoon, SK — is poised to adopt a road safety program that aims to eliminate death and serious injury on its streets. The city’s draft Vision Zero proposal is a welcome move that has garnered letters of support from the chief of police, the Saskatchewan Health Authority, Greater Saskatoon Catholic Schools and Medavie Health Services West. As it stands the proposal is a a mixed bag, so this seems like a good time to take a close look, and to draw some lessons for the benefit of Saskatoon and other communities poised to take the Vision Zero leap.

 *  *  *

First, a little background. Yesterday I was approached by the Saskatoon Star Phoenix, and quoted as expressing my concern that no Canadian city was really grasping what I call the Vision Zero difference: Continue reading

The state of urban cycling: A conversation with Chris and Melissa Bruntlett

Chris and Melissa Bruntlett

Chris and Melissa Bruntlett promoting their book “Building the Cycling City” at the Vimy Brewing Company, Ottawa, 29 August 2018. (Photo: Cécile Lecoq.)

When Vancouver-based urban cycling advocates Chris and Melissa Bruntlett dropped by the Vision Zero Canada World Headquaters in Ottawa they were wrapping up the Canadian leg of the tour promoting their brand-new book Building the Cycling City: The Dutch Blueprint for Urban Vitality (Island Press, 2018). I wanted to record a talk with them, but after all the media attention, including many podcasts, I figured they needed a break from paraphrasing their book. The result is a casual, free-wheeling conversation about the changing state of urban cycling in Canada, and what we can learn from the Dutch in everything from engineering to municipal politics. Continue reading

Crossing lines: Art & traffic safety in Montreal

A city worker puts the finishing touches on a crosswalk painted in a 3-dimensional style for a pilot project in the Montreal borough of Outremont on 10 July 2018. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)


by Graham Larkin

On Monday I’ll be talking on CBC Radio about a crosswalk in Montreal’s Outremont that looks like it’s levitating above the surface of the street.

Since you need a visual to really grasp the concept, I’m writing this post largely as a way to show listeners what we’re talking about. It begins with examples of existing Fake 3D crosswalks, and explains why this particular intervention is probably a bad idea. But not all such stunt work should be dismissed as frivolous. I close with a nod to Montreal’s decades-long tradition of urban critique that often involves paint.

*  *  *

But first, the news of the day … such as it is.

When the CBC first approached me about the Outremont story I thought to myself: “But it’s not even news!” The Fake 3D Crosswalk meme went viral years ago, with this photo of two merry pranksters on a street that turns out to be somewhere in Kyrgyzstan, according to this Reddit post of March 2014.

It’s a powerful image, not least because of the approximate alignment of the fake shadows with the shadows cast by the boys and the paint cans.

Here, from recent years, are some other examples of levitating crosswalks from around the world. Many announce themselves with the grabby headline: “[insert country here]’s First 3D Crosswalk!”

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Those photos allow you to grasp the basic Fake 3D Crosswalk concept.  By virtue of an anamorphic one-point perspective, the levitating-blocks effect should lock in at the right viewer height and distance. While it’s hard to gauge the real-life efficacy of the illusion from a stable, monocular, and invariably optimized point of view, it seems like most of these illusions could  work briefly from the driver’s perspective, if you’re coming at it from the right direction. I suspect they work a lot better in photographs than in real life.

CBC notes that the proposed Outremont crosswalk has a $3,000 price tag, which is up to 15 times the cost of a regular crosswalk. That fact alone should give us pause, but there are plenty more reasons to be skeptical of the initiative, including maintenance cost, all-conditions visibility, and the basic question of whether they will actually slow motor vehicles. The CBC article quotes Westmount active mobility advocate Daniel Lambert as saying that serious protection entails “more than these kinds of cosmetic, gimmicky things.” He sensibly proposes a zebra crossing with on-demand flashing beacons as a proven measure for protecting vulnerable road users.

A good rule of thumb for any safe infrastructure is to emulate the systems used in in places like the Netherlands and Denmark, which have very high proportions of cyclists and pedestrians, yet half our rates of road violence. In those countries none of the street designers are in the business of fooling anyone. On the contrary, infrastructure for a wide range of mobility modes is designed with maximum legibility. In the Netherlands, for instance, every element of the street surface—the colour, the texture, the grade, the shape—makes it clear who goes where and when. And there’s minimal signage or other distraction. So people of all ages and abilities can easily stay in their designated spaces, and really focus on each other.

Pedestrian crossings in those leading countries—and in some North American cities, if one looks at recent progress in New York—are made safer by features like crossing distances shortened by bump-outs and pedestrian islands; on-demand flashing beacons that can be strung on wires (as Lambert suggests) or stuck on posts on mid-street islands; advance signals for active users at all busy intersections; and traffic-calming grade changes including speed bumps and pedestrian tables. When applied in combination with safe speed limits, these features make streets feel less like highways and more like places for people.

All cities would do well to invest in these proven safe systems.

*  *  *

While it is not advisable to spend the traffic safety budget on fooling drivers with optical illusions, there can be real merit in painted interventions that make our streets less highway-like. Consider these two crossing designs for Dunedin City Council, New Zealand by Melbourne-based sidewalk artist Jenny McCracken.

McCracken’s art falls squarely into the “make walking fun” category—part of what urban designer Brent Toderian calls the City of Smiles—that includes John Cleese Silly Walks themed signage and murals in Norway and the Netherlands.

Returning to the meaner streets of Montreal, let’s have a look at the interventions of notorious street artist Peter ‘Roadsworth’ Gibson. As noted here,

Roadsworth began painting the streets of Montréal in the fall of 2001. Initially motivated by a desire for more bike paths in the city and a questioning of “car culture” in general, he continued to develop a language around street markings and other elements of the urban landscape using a primarily stencil based technique.

In the fall of 2004, Roadsworth was arrested for his nocturnal activities and charged with 53 counts of mischief. Despite the threat of heavy fines and a criminal record he received a relatively lenient sentence which he attributes in part to the public support he received subsequent to his arrest. Since that time, Roadsworth has received various commissions for his work and continues to be active in both visual art and music.

Here’s a sampling of Roadsworth’s  pedestrian crossings, including many designs from his rogue years:

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For more on Roadsworth’s street painting, which was largely a reaction to the chilling of free expression in the wake of the 9/11 disaster, see this trailer to Alan Kohl’s NFB documentary Roadsworth: Crossing the Line.

While not all scofflaw street painting falls into the category of tactical urbanism (broadly, “short-term action for long-term change“) Roadsworth’s unsanctioned hacking and humanizing of a car-centric traffic management lexicon seems to fit the bill. His persistent reclamation of street space for free expression is in the spirit of the famed Monde à Bicyclette activists of the 1970s. Their wildly popular die-ins, lane-paintings and other stunts—quite as impressive as similar demonstrations in Amsterdam, Copenhagen and San Francisco—raised awareness about cycling safety and created the pressure that made Montreal into North America’s premier cycling city.

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The radically democratic direct action of Bob Silverman, Chaire Morisette and Roadsworth gets people out onto the streets; it makes them more aware of their environment; and it allows them to see their city as a place that can be can be transformed by citizens demanding a safer, cleaner and more equitable world.

This tradition of refashioning our streets continues in the recent surge in tactical urbanism. Whether sanctioned or not, TU interventions generally involve some combination of paint and physical barriers.

Scroll down for some examples to explore and share.  😉

(or scroll down for more options):

 LISTEN to a critique of Fake 3D Crosswalks:

Toronto needs real Vision Zero

Memorial near Kennedy Public School, Scarborough for 11-year-old Duncan Xu, who was fatally struck by a driver as he was walking home on Feb 27, 2018. (Photo : Jaren Kerr / Toronto Star)

What the Swedes call Vision Zero and the Dutch call Sustainable Safety is an evidence-based mobility paradigm that focuses on designing fail-safe streets. It is primarily about infrastructure improvements, but it also entails the regulation of vehicles and the setting of appropriate speed limits.

The Vision Zero paradigm is radically different from the old ‘Education, Enforcement and Engineering’ approach to road safety that still holds sway in North America, including cities like Toronto that are rebranding such programs as “Vision Zero.” A survey of traffic death and serious injury data indicates that a rigorous safe systems approach—real Vision Zero—is the only way to make our streets safe. Compared to Canada, Vision Zero countries like Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands have about half the road violence and many times the rates of active mobility for people of all ages and abilities.

It’s misleading to brand any education measures, and most if not all enforcement measures, as Vision Zero. Research over many decades has proven that educational campaigns—whether watch for cars or watch for kids, wear a helmet or don’t text and drive—rarely result in the desired behavioural change, and they certainly don’t protect us from reckless drivers. The city of Toronto could save money by dispensing with frivolities like ‘suggested speed’ signage, and focusing instead on fail-safe and evidence-based approaches to road safety. Continue reading

Road violence and the English language

Orwell, again

My previous post included a long quotation from George Orwell, and an explanation of how fully he grasped the importance of safe speeds and collision-resistant infrastructure. Here are some excerpts from that remarkable 1946 statement.



In the following brief post I will again quote Orwell at length. But today the subject is how we talk and write about traffic violence, and I’ll be quoting the opening section of his famous essay Politics and the English Language, also written in 1946.

Orwell writes:

Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way, but it is generally assumed that we cannot by conscious action do anything about it. Our civilization is decadent and our language—so the argument runs—must inevitably share in the general collapse. It follows that any struggle against the abuse of language is a sentimental archaism, like preferring candles to electric light or hansom cabs to aeroplanes. Underneath this lies the half-conscious belief that language is a natural growth and not an instrument which we shape for our own purposes. Continue reading

George Orwell on Traffic Safety

'Keep Death off the Road' campaign poster designed by William Little and issued by the Ministry of Transport, Great Britain, 1946.

William Little, ‘Keep Death off the Road’ poster issued by the Ministry of Transport, Great Britain, 1946.

Eric Arthur Blair (1903–1950), who used the pen name George Orwell, is one of the greatest English prose stylists and social justice critics of the 20th century. He is also an unsung hero of traffic safety advocacy.

After being declared unfit for passionately-desired military service during the Second World War, Orwell ultimately obtained war work with the BBC in 1941, supervising cultural broadcasts to India to counter Nazi propaganda.

Realizing that this well-meaning campaign was having little effect, he resigned in November 1943 to take up work as literary editor with the left-wing weekly Tribune. For the next three and a half years he would write a series of free-ranging columns under the title As I Please.

The 8 November 1946 column included reflections on a new propaganda effort—Britain’s Keep Death off the Roads campaign Continue reading

Edmonton Comes to its Senses around Pedestrian Hi-Viz Campaign


Yesterday I joined Edmontonians in criticizing a proposed defensive walking campaign, admonishing pedestrians to wear high-visibility colthing and to make eye contact with drivers. Here (for as long as it’s up) is the description of the proposed campaign, and here is how I was quoted in Clare Clancy’s report on the scheme in yesterday’s Edmonton Journal & Edmonton Sun: Continue reading