Vancouver’s Deadly Roads

Nick Young arrived here by chance. And his life ended here, by chance. What makes Vancouver the country's deadliest city for pedestrians?

July 2, 2010

By Frances Bula / Photo: Dan Page

It was already dark when Nick Young, 27, set out for a run after work last January 19, a Tuesday. The temperature had risen to almost 14º C, unseasonable weather inducing widespread anxiety with the Olympics less than a month away. In shorts, a T-shirt, and a windbreaker, Nick jogged south from his apartment near Mount Saint Joseph Hospital. He’d loaded his iPod with his usual eclectic mix—everything from electronica to bluegrass—and he ran until he couldn’t push himself any farther. Then he turned to head home. For the New Zealand-born process engineer, whose days working on complex computer programs in a downtown office were more sedentary than he would have liked, the run was part of a New Year’s plan to shake some weight.

Just after 7:30 p.m., Nick pressed the light at King Edward and St. George and headed into the crosswalk, which sits at the bottom of a small valley between Main and Fraser streets. A nurse coming east had already slowed as she approached the intersection. But another driver, in an Infiniti, swung out from behind her to get through before the light changed.

The impact threw Nick’s body onto the pavement and his iPod into the bushes. Police scoured the site for hours searching for clues to his identity. So it wasn’t until 6 the next morning—after they’d found the iPod, opened an old résumé on it, and figured out who he was—that they made it to his condo. Alastair Kernahan, his best friend since high-school days in Christchurch, answered the knock. He’d assumed Nick was staying over at his girlfriend’s. Meredith Douglas-Moore, a recent SFU archaeology grad, hadn’t been worried either, thinking Nick was out with another friend.

When Alastair heard that Nick had likely been in a bad accident, he headed off, in shock, to VGH to identify his friend. As he was pulling up outside the hospital, Nick’s parents, William and Susan, called from New Zealand. They’d just got word. He’s gone, they said. Brain dead. Alastair took a minute to compose himself, then went up to Nick’s room. “He actually looked in fairly good shape. He looked like he was sleeping. There were a lot of bandages around his head, but all I could see was that he had a black eye.”

Vancouver likes to think it has an almost European culture of walkability. But more pedestrians die here each year than in any other place in Canada. In Montreal, after 27 pedestrians died in 2006, police launched an offensive to bring down the fatality rate, extending crossing times at major intersections, putting on a massive public-education campaign, and hiring an additional 200 traffic-enforcement officers. They also wrote a lot more tickets. As a result, pedestrian deaths have fallen to 18 each year for each of the last two years. Toronto went through a convulsion of blame after 10 pedestrians were killed in nine consecutive days in January across the region. This after making pedestrian safety a top priority and producing a 100-page report two years ago on new measures that would help achieve that. Even so, in the city proper, 31 pedestrians died last year.

That would be a good number for Metro Vancouver. The statistics here are little-known and often obscured (because of the region’s separate police forces), but in 2008, 34 pedestrians were killed. Two years before that, 38 people died. Vancouver’s rate works out to 1.7 people killed for every 100,000 in population—more than double Calgary’s and half again as many as Ottawa’s. Careless drivers and walkers help explain the number, but there are other reasons. More people walk in balmy Vancouver—in fact, city planners urge us to do so. The city, famous for its refusal to allow a freeway through it, has promoted itself as a walking city, creating pedestrian routes and changing traffic signals to favour pedestrians—all of which creates the conditions for billions of pedestrian/car interactions a year as 1.4 million vehicles and 2.1 million residents cross paths. Two people have to lose focus for only a moment for death to result.

Researchers have written volumes trying to understand and prevent pedestrian accidents—such fatalities sometimes exceed a city’s homicide rates, though with much less fanfare. (Nick’s death got four sentences in the Sun.) According to a 10-year study of U.S. accidents done in 2008, the number is going down, but they remain a puzzling phenomenon. Studies don’t give all the answers, but they make one thing clear: pedestrian deaths don’t happen randomly. In Europe, Spain is the most deadly country, nearing Vancouver rates with 1.5 deaths per 100,000, attributable in part to the lack of crosswalks and penalties for drivers. The Netherlands is the safest, at .46 deaths per 100,000. In New York City, half of all deaths involving motor vehicles are pedestrians, compared to a 12-percent share nationally. And while crashes and deaths are declining everywhere, pedestrians who do get involved in a crash are more likely now than in previous years to die.

Nick Young was 24 when he arrived in Vancouver, part of the global caravan of young, educated kids who set out to explore the world before marriage and children and the rest. He’d actually meant to keep travelling. After four years of engineering studies and 18 months’ work for an oil and gas company in New Zealand, he didn’t feel ready to settle. He started his grand tour with a few days in Hawaii, then landed in Vancouver in June 2006. Three years later, he was still here—now with a job, multiple circles of friends, a girlfriend, and a life of snowboarding, cycling, camping, and travelling.

He was the oldest son of New Zealand’s appeal-court president and a graduate of one the country’s best private schools, but he didn’t act it. He was laid-back, a little geeky even, someone who hated team sports and didn’t take to the alpha males associated with them. At work, he’d come in with his hair sticking up and his shirts not quite ironed. He was six-foot-one, but he hunched a little, shoulders rounded. The Nick walk, his friends called it. He loved Vancouver. He became a permanent resident in 2009 and bought an apartment just before Christmas in a nondescript area of East Van. It meant something to him that his condo had a view across Kingsway to the snow-covered North Shore peaks. A slice of home. The condo was a sign to family and friends that he was starting to settle down, practise being an adult. He wasn’t one of those boys who takes crazy risks. A series of accidents when he was a teenager learning to drive put him on the road of caution. In his new apartment, his most radical act was to turn off the fire alarm, because it kept going off when his cooking experiments went awry.

At 27, Nick was statistically unlikely to die in a collision with a car—people over 65 are at greatest risk, followed by children and teens. But he was in danger in other ways. He was out after dark. It was January, the likeliest month along with December for a fatality because of the extra hours of dark and bad weather. He was male. And though he wasn’t at one of the city’s high-risk intersections—Main and Hastings is the number one crash location in the region (a combination of busy traffic and the erratic parade of people staggering out into the street); Burrard and Davie (where clubgoers collide with bridge-bound traffic) is another—he was on a street where drivers would not be scanning for pedestrians.

Psychology isn’t taught in engineering school, but it’s something engineers, especially those who deal with traffic, have to learn about. In Vancouver, Jerry Dobrovolny, who looks as if he could benchpress a bus but speaks with quiet precision, is the city engineer whose responsibility extends from young kids on skateboards to elderly scooter drivers. His department meets monthly with the Vancouver police traffic team headed by Inspector Ted Schinbein, and consults regularly with ICBC. On the engineering front, Dobrovolny’s group has tried several experiments: strips of lights on the street to mark crosswalks; LOOK signs painted onto pavement; flashing yellow lights at certain crosswalks; sidewalk bulges to reduce the width of road pedestrians have to cross. The flashing yellows haven’t worked, Dobrovolny concludes. “They weren’t enough to stop the cars in the faster lane on a four-lane road. You get into the psychology aspect of this and look at the cues the drivers take. The cue in those flashing yellows was not strong enough.” But his group will soon be installing something that ICBC has concluded does work: countdown lights. San Francisco recently found that not only did they cause walkers to stop racing into intersections at the last second, but the number of traffic collisions caused by drivers running a red light dropped from 45 percent to 34 percent. San Francisco has now installed countdown lights at all 800 of its light-controlled intersections. Toronto has gone on an aggressive campaign to install them. In the Lower Mainland, only Burnaby has gone all-out, putting them in at all 230 of its light-controlled intersections. Only 20 exist elsewhere in the region; none in Vancouver at the moment, although Dobrovolny says they’re coming.

The old-fashioned, non-countdown light at St. George was put in 11 years ago, after parents and staff at neighbouring Tupper high school argued that hundreds of kids crossing the road there every week often resulted in near accidents. The intersection lies in a small valley. Cars going west from Fraser fly down the hill. And cars coming east from Main can’t see whether there’s someone in the intersection almost until the last second, because the street drops and then plateaus twice, like a carnival flying-carpet ride. Off-peak, King Edward lacks the cues to remind drivers it’s a road, not a highway. Typically, Dobrovolny explains, drivers slow when they see people walking around. “You see a marked change in driver behaviour as they move into an area where there’s more activity. Where there’s no parking and no pedestrians, the driver cues that this is a corridor for cars.” That kind of road is the most dangerous for pedestrians because drivers there suffer from what psychologists and Dobrovolny call “inattention blindness”—the inability to see something that you aren’t expecting to see.

Over at the VPD, Schinbein would like to do more to get drivers to pay attention: issue more tickets, police particular intersections more heavily. But he has only 48 officers in traffic enforcement, some of those in traffic court. The RCMP’s regional traffic-enforcement section, which polices traffic in the three-quarters of the region outside Vancouver (where two-thirds of the pedestrian deaths happen), has a fifth of its staff missing because of unfilled vacancies.

Vancouver also has a peculiar culture of driver and pedestrian behaviour. Visitors notice that we step into crosswalks blindly, expecting that cars will stop automatically. And they notice the way we drive, too. Nick’s friend Alastair was struck by our careless driving. “I’ve driven in Toronto and they’re better. Here, it seems like it’s hard for drivers to get anywhere unless they flout the rules,” says Alastair. “They don’t indicate when they’re changing lanes, and they run red lights.”

When a human being is hit straight on by a high-ended vehicle—a bus, a pickup, an SUV—the body is propelled in the same direction as the travelling vehicle. Its speed is the same as the vehicle’s impact speed, or slightly less, explains Amrit Toor, one of the handful of specialist forensic engineers in the city who do accident analysis for both ICBC and private citizens. “But the head and limb speed can be higher.” As well, the vehicle’s energy is absorbed by the body quickly, which means more damage. When a truck hits a pedestrian, the impact usually lasts only 100 to 200 milliseconds.

If you’re hit by a car, your chances are better. A low bumper catches you below the knees and knocks your legs out. Your body rolls up the hood; typically, your head smashes the windshield. Still, your odds of surviving are better, says Toor. “When you’re hit by a car and you roll onto it, you go to 400 to 500 milliseconds of collision time.” If the driver hit the brakes before impact, you’ll typically bounce back to the road in front of the car. If he didn’t, your body will end up behind the car. If the car is going less than 30 kilometres an hour, you’ll likely survive. At 30 to 50 kilometres, the injuries will likely be more serious, perhaps fatal (usually depending on whether your head takes a lot of the impact). Beyond 50 kilometres an hour, says Toor, “you can expect fatal.”

Who was at fault at King Edward and St. George? Was it Nick, perhaps distracted by his iPod? Or the Infiniti driver, trying to make the light? The Crown prosecutor will decide if charges will be laid, but that could take months. Nick’s friends say they’ve been told Nick had the right of way, but William Young, wanting to avoid any suggestion of interference, says he and his wife haven’t been informed about evidence either way. (Vancouver police don’t release accident details prior to charges, so it’s unclear what the evidence is.) Nick’s family has heard that the driver, who wrote a letter to Susan expressing his anguish, won’t be charged criminally but may be charged with violations of the Motor Vehicle Act.

 

In the meantime, friends and family are learning to live without Nick. Susan and William flew in with Nick’s younger sister, Charlotte, and baby brother, Thomas, 32 hours after the call from Alastair. They had already agreed to give Nick’s organs away and those had been harvested four hours before they arrived. All that was left were the onerous arrangements that come with death. The family walked up St. George to look at the accident site. They arranged the funeral; 60 of Nick’s friends came. They did the paperwork to allow them to fly his ashes home.

Back in Christchurch, 600 people came out to a memorial at the chapel attached to Christ’s College, where Nick had gone to school. In March, Nick’s mother flew back to Vancouver to empty out the apartment, with Meredith’s help, and then sell it.

Susan Young wants desperately to talk to the nurse who helped her son, but won’t be given her name until any legal proceedings are finished. “I just want to know for myself that he wasn’t in pain.” She and William have spoken with the company where Nick worked, Chinook Engineering, about setting up a scholarship for a New Zealand engineering student to do an internship in Vancouver. But mostly Susan is trying to accept that Nick is gone and that blame has limited satisfaction. “There is no point with us being angry. Nothing will bring him back. I’m just trying to find a reason. He’d just been in New Zealand with us for three weeks at Christmas and we’d had the happiest time you could ever imagine. It’s like it was meant to be.”

Meredith has moved back to her hometown of Denver. Like many of those closest to Nick, she is gracious but reserved, speaking with almost 19th-century composure in spite of her youth. As the conversation continues, though, she starts crying. “It was hard living in Vancouver after.” Susan Young gave her Nick’s old Chevy Malibu. She piled in what she’d accumulated during her time here and drove back across the Rockies. She didn’t feel nervous in the car, in spite of everything. On the highway, you don’t see pedestrians and the miles just roll by. But when she got home to suburban Denver, the accident kept coming back. “It’s always going to be in the back of my mind. I felt more jumpy walking around. I kept thinking, ‘Why should I trust anyone?’”

Get the Newsletter

Own your city with Vancouver’s thrice-weekly scoop on the latest restaurant news, must-shop hotspots and can’t miss events. Rest assured your email is safe with us.