Saturday, February 6, 2010

Fatal Steps

She was twenty-nine years old—an effervescent woman with thick long brown hair and an infectious laugh. For all her smiles and good humour, she wasn’t very happy. We met at a bridal party many years ago and soon into our conversation she confided that she was tired of going to engagement parties and weddings, not to mention the baby showers. She'd already been a bridesmaid about a dozen times and she didn't even have a boyfriend.

She was being left behind.

Her friends had partners and houses, babies and pets. Their lives were full of people, laughter, love, and busyness. Hers was consumed by a job she didn’t like and trying to meet eligible men. She was apprehensive. What if she never met anyone? What if she was destined to merely observe other people’s joy-filled lives? All this was said with a smile but I could tell that she was serious. She was lonely. She wanted someone to love and she wanted him now.

“Be patient,” I said. “You’re gorgeous, you’ve got a great personality, and you’re young! You’ll meet someone without even trying.”

She smiled with unconvinced eyes. “That’s what everyone says.”

A few months later, I heard that Katie had met a great guy. A few months after that, I heard that she was engaged. She was over the moon in love. The engagement parties, the showers and the big wedding plans were all underway.

Then I heard that Katie was dead. She’d been struck by a truck when jaywalking across a busy intersection with her fiancée. That was almost twenty years ago.

Almost every day these past few weeks there has been a pedestrian accident in Toronto. First it was 9 deaths in 9 days and then I heard that the number had climbed to 14 deaths in 14 days. Just last week a woman was crossing a busy street near my neighbourhood, pushing a baby carriage, when a minivan struck her. She had just enough time to push the stroller aside, saving her baby but not herself. She died on impact.

Toronto is a congested city and both drivers and pedestrians are impatient. No one wants to kill someone by driving into them and no one wants to be hit. But it happens—much too often as the recent statistics show. We’re distracted, we’re in a rush and we tend to forget how vulnerable we are. We like to think of ourselves as tough and resilient, but our bodies are like bugs, easily crushed when a bigger force comes into contact with us.

My son has a dog-walking job. Every evening he takes a big chocolate lab out for a half-hour stroll. The dog is dark brown; my son is even darker with his black pants, black coat and black hat. Since our neighbourhood has few sidewalks and lots of curvy roads it can be difficult to see them through the pitch-black winter sky. With his iPod blaring in his ears and the dog sniffing left, right and center, he is deaf to the sound of approaching cars and oblivious to his surroundings. I ask him to be careful, I remind him to wear a fluorescent band around his sleeve, but I know my words are only partly heeded. I worry.

Who’s to blame when these kinds of accidents happen? It’s hard to point fingers because pedestrians need to be more cognisant of what’s going on around them and refrain from jaywalking, and motorists need to slow down and stay alert at all times. Last week Toronto police handed out $50 tickets to jaywalkers at a busy intersection downtown. 56 tickets were distributed by 10:30a.m. Will this deter people from jaywalking? I’m not convinced.

In the fall, the Ontario government passed a law prohibiting cell phone use while driving. Perhaps pedestrians should also be subject to this law. A man was recently killed by a streetcar while talking on his cell phone. Walking down Yonge Street in Toronto, one sees plenty of business people rushing along with a phone to their ear. The same can be witnessed around any university campus.

Premier Dalton McGuinty has urged pedestrians and motorists to be respectful of each other and more careful of their surroundings. That’s the bottom line and we know he’s right. But are we really listening?

I hope so because every single person that meets such a senseless death leaves this world much too soon, with devastated family and friends to mourn the loss forever. Whenever I learn of another fatal pedestrian accident I think of Katie and all her unfulfilled dreams. It’s heartbreaking.

Let’s not put ourselves in danger by taking senseless risks, and let’s not be the distracted driver who inadvertently hits someone. Life is too precious to end it this way.

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