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Thursday, March 15, 2007
One year after McMaster student Heather Watson was struck and killed by a vehicle while crossing Cootes Dr., a local action group is still fighting for progress to be made in pedestrian safety in and around McMaster University.
Watson was a second year Arts & Science student who was tragically struck by a City of Hamilton salt truck.
“We're definitely disappointed that not much is happening with regards to the situation because there's a lot of potential for improvement here,” said Randy Kay, member of the McMaster chapter of the Ontario Public Interest Research Group.
Kay, along with a number of city officials, police officers and independent parties, has formed an advocacy group called Transportation for Liveable Communities, which focuses on street safety in high traffic areas.
The group had been concerned with the danger posed by motorists in the area long before Watson's tragic death. They were able to effectively draw the city's attention to the issue.
“We petitioned the city about the danger of the area. They hired consultants who came in and did a thorough job studying traffic volumes and speeds with their technology. Their final analysis was that the area was very dangerous and they proposed the idea of a pedestrian controlled traffic light across Cootes behind the university,” recalled Kay.
Although a light was installed at the time of Heather's death, the accident did prompt the TLC members to continue pressing on in their fight for improved conditions. The group tabled a number of secondary safety recommendations for the area.
“One major improvement would be to get rid of the ‘ramp' from Main St. W. to Cootes Dr. and have traffic turn right at the intersection. That would definitely slow down vehicle speeds on that stretch of road,” said Kay, who also suggested narrowing lanes, implementing caution signs in the vicinity and condensing Cootes Dr. into two single lanes flowing in each direction.
According to Ward 1 councilor and TLC member Brian McHattie, some of these smaller scale initiatives are underway and very close to fruition. “The speed [on Cootes Dr.] will be reduced shortly as well as having signage posted on the bridge reminding drivers that they are entering a school zone, and to drive accordingly.”
The same cannot be said about TLC's long-term plans, such as lane reduction and narrowing behind the school, as the group has received little support from City Hall and other councilors involved in the decisions.
“There's not a lot of opposition for these safety initiatives until you get into road reconfiguration. The city and my colleague in Dundas are not very keen on changing the road around,” noted McHattie.
Some feel that while the traffic light has been a positive step in assisting street safety on the bustling thoroughfare, its technical flaws have produced equally negative effects.
“Many students weren't using the crosswalk effectively because the delay on the light was so long, people would get tired of waiting and run across through breaks in traffic,” said Kay, who was critical of the way the city's Traffic Engineering and Operations department dealt with the concern.
“They recognized that this was a problem and addressed it by adjusting the light to be more responsive off of rush hour. The city is very concerned with traffic backup,” added Kay.
McMaster student Patricia Consentino also commented on the situation. “I live on the other side of Cootes Dr. and I use the light everyday. Sometimes I get sick of waiting for the light to change and I just go when I see a clear path.”
This type of impatience is exactly what has Mike Hill, manager of Hamilton's Risk Assessment services, so frustrated with over the issue of street safety, to which he cited as the responsibility of the pedestrian. “Students show no regards for the rules of the community. We can't keep putting up barriers, people need to start taking accountability for their own actions.”
Andrew Blair, a third year McMaster student said it is up to the individual to take responsibility - whether it is a pedestrian or a driver. “If you're a pedestrian, make sure you're not stepping out in front of a moving car. If you're a driver, you have to realize that people can get seriously injured by your vehicle if you're not paying attention or being careless.”
Hill added that cost is a factor. “Infrastructure costs money and we have to get the message out to force people to do things in a responsible way, not just as they please.”
The infrastructure that Hill is referring to includes other streetlights in high traffic areas, such as near shopping centers and a handful of red light cameras strewn across the city to catch motorists who fail to beat the changing lights.
According to the City of Hamilton website, these cameras are responsible for an almost eight per cent decrease in intersection collisions throughout Hamilton.
However, this figure is somewhat contradictory to the Hamilton Police Services traffic report for 2004-05, which cites only a one per cent decrease in motor vehicle accidents. This statistic is paired with an increase of 16.6 per cent in vehicle collision fatalities, which rose from 17 in 2004 to 20 in 2005.
One proposed method to improve street safety in Hamilton is to desynchronize the traffic lights on King St. W. and Main St. W. to prevent speeding, though Kay does not see this as being the answer. “We suggested the city could deal with speed by altering the synchronized “green wave' to hold cars to a maximum 50km/h. This is something they could do right away to slow speeds and make the pedestrian climate much safer.”
Kay remains optimistic, especially in light of the recent change in the mayoral guard. “The city has always catered to the motorist, an example being all the one-way streets and arterial roads. They need to develop express bus lanes and more bike lanes. I do get the impression we'll get further with [Fred] Eisenberger than we did with [Larry] Dianni as there's indications of move towards more environmental programs.”