Pedestrians are poised to get the right-of-way more often when crossing Hamilton’s reputedly dangerous streets — just as soon as the province makes it legal to do so.
The province has announced plans to update Highway Traffic Act regulations with an eye to making walking and cycling safer.
That includes making it legal for cities like Hamilton — labelled the second-most dangerous in Ontario for pedestrians in a recent study — to create new street-crossing options that give the right-of-way to pedestrians.
Right now, pedestrians only have the legal right-of-way at controlled intersections, like those with stop signs, traffic lights or specialized signals like a school crossing.
The city is already studying mid-block or uncontrolled intersection locations for new crossings in anticipation, said traffic operations manager Martin White. “The day it becomes law, we will have some plans,” said White, who is preparing a report for council.
The proposed new crossings would be “quite different” than traditional crosswalks, said Ministry of Transportation spokesperson Bob Nichols, so updated regulations are needed.
Most proposed new crossings will include flashing lights and signage reminding drivers to yield, but for lower-speed streets, only pavement markings and signs will be required.
That’s a better option than the “courtesy crossings,” pitched by the city last year, which featured signs warning that vehicles aren’t required to stop, said Ryan McGreal.
“I think the message you send is hugely important. If you tell drivers they don’t have to yield, guess what? They won’t,” said the Raise the Hammer author, who wrote about the proposal last year.
McGreal took photos of a family trying — for a long time, unsuccessfully — to cross Cannon Street at Elgin, an uncontrolled intersection with a ladder crosswalk. He noted even when a vehicle slowed to let the family cross, a following car “went ballistic and swerved around,” endangering everyone involved.
Just giving pedestrians the legal right-of-way won’t guarantee their safety, noted White. “I have to say, we can change the rules and we can change the signs, but that doesn’t change driver behaviour. That will be the big chore,” he said.
McGreal agreed a “change in culture” is needed — “but one of the ways you change culture is by changing the infrastructure,” he said, adding that includes not just new crossings, but also separated bike lanes and bump outs.
The pending change in law is a “baby step” in the right direction, said Coun. Sam Merulla, who has repeatedly authored council motions asking the province for “universal” pedestrian right-of-way rules.
“It won’t happen overnight, but I think if we’re serious about tackling pedestrian fatalities, we have to change the rules of the road … and put pedestrians ahead of the almighty car,” he said, pointing to European countries that require vehicles to give way to pedestrians at all or most crossings.
The proposed regulatory changes in the Keeping Ontario’s Roads Safe Act have only passed first reading in the legislature. In the meantime, Martin said the city is implementing its new pedestrian mobility plan and using red light ticket cash for traffic safety projects.