Editorial: Second Avenue: How many more people have to get hit?

There is no sugarcoating it: Whitehorse’s Second Avenue is a hazard for pedestrians and if nothing is done to improve things more people are going to die.

In the last two months of 2019 at least two people were struck by vehicles while trying to cross the street.

In November, 48-year-old Merle Gorgichuk died after being hit by a pickup truck while he was in a crosswalk at Second Avenue and Elliot Street.

Even fewer details are available regarding the pedestrian struck at the end of December at the intersection of Second Avenue and Lambert Street. At the time, police said they believed he or she was going to be fine.

A search through newspaper archives finds numerous other examples of people being killed or injured crossing that road. Following Gorgichuk’s death the family of Margaret Wood, killed 18 years ago at the same intersection, begged Yukoners to slow down.

Wood’s family says they urged the city at the time of her death to install cameras at intersections and lower the speed limit.

That was 18 years ago.

Many police officers who investigate vehicle crashes avoid calling them “accidents.” The implication being that most crashes are not accidental and could have been avoided.

Crashes can only be avoided if we talk about them and then — importantly — find the political will to actually get something done.

We need to start coming up with solutions.

All sorts of ideas have been suggested across North America — everything from different types of flashing lights to asking pedestrians to pick up bright orange flags as they walk from one side of the street to the other.

According to the publication CityLab, a study conducted by the Chicago advocacy group Active Transportation Alliance found only 18 per cent of drivers on average stopped for people on foot in a marked crosswalk like the majority of the ones found in Whitehorse on Second and Fourth Avenues.

At crosswalks that had more to catch a driver’s eye — for example the ones with flashing lights — that went up to 61 per cent. Hitting 61 per cent is not a rousing success, but it’s certainly an improvement.

Following Gorgichuk’s death officials with the City of Whitehorse put up signs to remind drivers of the marked crosswalks. They insist one thing had nothing to do with the other. (We will leave it up to you whether you believe them.)

Those signs are not the same as actual flashing lights.

Studies, including one published this past October by Rutgers University, have found that cycling is overall safer with more cyclists on the road. The theory is that an increase in cyclists means an increase in drivers paying attention, as well as money spent on infrastructure and safety campaigns.

The same would likely be true for pedestrians. If the city could be more pedestrian-friendly drivers would be more likely to pay attention and less likely to treat Second Avenue like the Alaska Highway.

Roads also become safer with fewer cars on them. In order for that to happen, people need to be comfortable functioning as a pedestrian.

Please consider this what feels like the 12 millionth request by this newspaper for the City of Whitehorse to actually enforce its ice and snow bylaw that requires people and businesses keep their sidewalks clear.

The city recently revealed that though complaints have been made about unsafe sidewalks in Whitehorse this winter, zero people or businesses have actually been fined.

That’s unacceptable. One of the other names on the list of pedestrians killed by vehicles on Second Avenue is 71-year-old Margaret Johnson who died in 2016 when she was struck by a pickup truck.

It’s believed she was in the road because she could not maneuver her electric wheelchair over the unpaved sidewalks.

Yes, there is responsibility on both sides. Pedestrians should be wearing bright clothing and paying attention as they cross. But in a crash between a car and a person, the person loses — every time.

The RCMP have a responsibly to be part of this public conversation as well and not just when it comes to catching drivers who speed, ignore stop signs and blow through crosswalks without looking.

The Yukon RCMP has a small, dedicated, traffic services division. Surely those officers have some ideas on how to make the roads safer. They likely have advice for driving in the winter, particularly when the sun is so low. They must know which areas of town are the most prone to crashes.

So far the RCMP have been irritatingly quiet.

The cops ignored multiple requests to comment on our story about road safety. They still won’t say publicly if anyone has been charged following Gorgichuk’s death.

The RCMP may be struggling in part because M division has been without an official spokesperson for the last few months but that explanation only goes so far. (It’s worth noting the cops have found time to publicly shame people with the newly-minted “weekly warrants” email blast.)

Staffing issues aside, there are some topics RCMP brass should be open to talking about. This is one of those moments.

Changes need to be made. The city promised a study on the Second Avenue corridor by the end of 2019. There also appears to be more political will then usual. Multiple city councillors have also raised concerns.

But city spokesperson Myles Dolphin admitted major changes “will take time to properly analyze, consult with the public, and implement through the capital project process.”

Don’t make Gorgichuk’s family wait 18 years the way Margaret Wood’s has. (AJ)

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