Road safety workers wary of dangerous distractions

Toronto police and road safety workers agree, cellphones, iPods and other personal electronic gadgets are distracting pedestrians to death.

Since the beginning of January, 14 pedestrians have been killed in Toronto-area traffic. The first incident occurred on Jan. 6, when a car struck an 80-year-old man crossing Harmony Road in Oshawa; he later died of his injuries at the hospital.

Most recently, a 57-year-old man on crutches was struck and killed by a dump truck as he was crossing the busy Danforth and Broadway avenue intersection. His death became the catalyst for a public relations blitz on road safety and for a crackdown on jaywalking pedestrians.

According to the cold statistics, the crackdown is justified. In 2009, 31 pedestrians died on Toronto streets yet, just one month into 2010 nearly 25 per cent of 2009’s grisly toll has been realized. Road safety experts point to the use of hand-held technology as one of the reasons why pedestrians and drivers are increasingly running into each other.

Angelo DiCicco, general manager of the Young Drivers of Canada in Toronto, is wary of what he calls “new and invasive technology,” such as cellphones and MP3 players: “There are more and more opportunities to be distracted,” he said.

According to DiCicco, the use of handheld devices has resulted in a breakdown of non-verbal cues between drivers and pedestrians; such interaction used to be key in preventing road accidents. “Nothing beats eye-to-eye contact for communication,” he said.

As a crossing guard, Jack Aldred believes that common sense and common courtesy on the roads has also eroded over the years. He recently marked his 22nd year of duty at the intersection of Mortimer and Carlaw avenues. While Aldred agrees cellphones and MP3 players are a dangerous distraction, he also said that how people dress against the cold weather is another concern.

“Women with their winter coats, with their hoods up; they’re only seeing in front of them. They’re not looking to the side,” he said.

With pedestrians either distracted or visually hindered, DiCicco believes that cognitive training, the ability to multi-task, think and react quickly, will be the new frontier of driver education. His organization employs a cognitive assessment evaluation on its website.

For DiCicco, a greater emphasis on cognitive training for drivers and pedestrians is necessary for Toronto’s overstressed and frenetic roads.

“We have to do something because the BlackBerry isn’t going away,” he said.