why high-viz clothing is a last measure


We've been living something of an libertarian experiment in Toronto under the successive tenures of Rob Ford and John Tory. Promising low taxes, these mayors have delivered with the lowest taxes among major Ontario cities. This has, of course, come with cuts. Traffic enforcement by Toronto Police Services stopped altogether around 2013, with zero officers assigned to traffic enforcement. The result is a city in which people drive like nothing matters, leaving some forty stricken pedestrians to die in the street annually and even driving around the body.

There was a lot of outcry online in late 2019 over some Toronto councilors and the police handing out high-visibility arm-bands to senior citizens in Scarborough–one of the areas in the city that's been hit especially hard by road violence in the past few years. The outcry was keyed on the impression that the city is blaming pedestrians for being hit by cars. I don't think this is "victim blaming" and believe that high-visibility anything should be a good idea if it keeps people safe. The problem here is that it's actually a big if. Because it assumes several things are in place that all too frequently aren't there today:

As I'll show, all of these appear to be in doubt because our society is changing under a variety of pressures.

Moreover, I want to look at high-visibility clothing as a means of risk control. I intend to show that it's nothing more than a pathetic attempt at appearing busy on the issue. Worse, it represents the worst kind of risk control—something that can't be effective because the problem lies elsewhere.

part one: a society in transition

the city is exploding

I suspect that the actual day-time population of Toronto proper is now around 4.6 million. I get this number from two sources: the 2016 census said we had a population of 2.7 million and a daily commuter load that brings another 1.9 million into the city. The greater census metropolis (which includes places like Missisauga and Markham but not further-flung cities like Hamilton) is now 6.4 million. Here's where that compares with the city's population in 1971.

All of this growth came without a corresponding growth in our traffic infrastructure or management. We still have the same number of freeways and the same number of major subway lines. The GO commuter train system has expanded greatly but this is a reflection of the explosive growth of the outer suburbs. Anyone getting around Toronto is hard-pressed to do so in a timely fashion using public transit. I'll touch on this further below.

But first, I want to look at another recent "shock": the police haven't been enforcing traffic laws.

According to Toronto's chief of police, the city shuttered the unit responsible for traffic enforcement in 2013. The results speak for themselves: car crashes have increased dramatically and continue to climb, and there has been a steady drum-beat of pedestrian death in the city ever since. Assuming that people are dressing the way they were when the police lost their funding for traffic enforcement, the only difference that can explain this is that drivers have been taking advantage of the lax enforcement. In fact, the same police report in which this admission emerged states exactly what's happening:

So far, in 2019, 48 people have lost their lives to traffic collisions, 35 (73%) of those were vulnerable road users (pedestrians, cyclists, motorcyclists). These are not just numbers, these are our community members; each of these deaths were preventable. Too often, drivers speed, distraction, aggressiveness and impairment were identified as contributing factors in the collision.

There is a strong relationship between speeding, distracted driving, aggressive driving, and impaired driving in respect to collision probability and severity of injury. In Toronto, these offences are often referred to as the “Big 4”. Aggressive driving includes following too closely, running red lights, speeding, street racing, driving too fast for road conditions and passing improperly.

The report also explains why the "big four" continue to be such a problem.

The STEM Team disbanded in 2013. Between 2011 and 2018 service-wide uniform strength dropped by 805 officers making front line policing response to emergency calls for service a priority. The disbandment of the STEM Team and reduction in uniform officer strength contributed to a reduction in enforcement as shown in the chart above.

The report, like every report ever written, serves the authors. But the point stands: between city council, the Toronto Police Services Board, and the leadership at Toronto Police Services, there has been a willful de-funding of enforcement that allowed driver aggression to go unchecked.

Pedestrians wearing high-visibility clothing doesn't impact the "big four" of speeding, distracted driving, aggressive driving, and impaired driving, nor any of the other activities that make up aggressive driving. The fact that the police have been put in a place where they have to sacrifice the safety of our streets to deal with more serious crime reflects both the growth that the city's experienced and the lack of consensus on things like how much tax should be collected and where it should be spent.

In this context, brightly-colored pedestrians don't address the root causes of a city that hasn't been managing its growth or enforcing minimal laws.

more vehicles, way more steel

According to an article we posted to this blog just last week, two of the top three reasons 39% more cyclists were killed in the US in 2019 than 2010 are:

No one knows exactly how many more drivers there are on the roads of Toronto than in 2010 but a study by Ryerson University says there are 70,000 ride-hailing licenses of which the city says a minimum of 5,000 active vehicles generate 170,000 more trips on our streets per day. We also know that home deliveries driven by e-commerce have caused private vehicle use to grow by as much as 30% in Germany while in New York city daily deliveries have grown by 400% in the past ten years.

This relates directly to the safety of pedestrians and cyclists. First, it means that there are a lot more vehicles making abrupt stops at the side of the road where cyclists ride and where pedestrians are vulnerable. According to Toronto Police Services statistics, between 2008 and 2018 some 22 people were slain while on the sidewalk or shoulder of a road.

The increased congestion massively increases frustration. Those of us who have lived in the city for 20+ years know what the congestion has done to trip times. We've all experienced days when it can take 45 minutes to get onto the expressway when before it might have taken 3-5 minutes. The average speed of travel across the city center by car is only 20kph.

It simply doesn't matter what the pedestrians are wearing when drivers are cutting corners to get ahead. E.g. Using sidewalks.

vehicle design

Compounding all of this is that vehicles have been growing larger and larger with time. Here's a snapshot of new car versus new truck sales in the US.

The larger a vehicle is, the harder it is to control through steering and braking. This holds true for the largest vehicles. Their bulk also makes it harder to see pedestrians and cyclists in their immediate vicinity. While cities like London have enforced new regulations that result in designs with much greater visibility of pedestrians and other users, Toronto has nothing of the sort. The difference is starkly obvious when you see a London dump-truck versus a Toronto dump-truck.

London garbage-truck: great sight lines, modest dimensions

Behemoth Toronto garbage-truck in a bike lane, flattening bollards

Which would you rather have operating around small children? Or elderly people with limited mobility? Again, it doesn't matter if you're wearing high-visibility clothing when the driver can't see you.

Even for smaller vehicles such as the "CUV"s that are displacing so many cars, design matters. Windows are narrowed and pillars wider, limiting the driver's view of the road. Front windows are meant to have no more than 30% tint, but frequently do. Cars are becoming obscenely powerful such as the recently-announced 1,000 horsepower Ford Mustang. The fastest variant of the newly-minted Tesla pickup has 800hp and can reach 60mph in under three seconds. That's just shy of 100kph. A truck-ostensibly designed for moving loads-simply doesn't need that sort of acceleration.

smartphone zombies

Scenarios like the one at left (courtesy of Shawn Marshall) show the sorts of things that are all too possible with today's cars and today's drivers. The third of the top-three reasons for that additional 39% of cyclists killed: Smart Phone Use Is on the Rise.

The TPS report I mentioned previous had this to say on the subject of aggressive and distracted driving: Toronto Transportation Services looked at how the “Big 4” factors weighed in the Killed or Seriously Injured (KSI) collisions that happened in Toronto between 2013 and 2017. They reported that aggressive and distracted driving was a contributing factor in 44% of all fatal collisions and 52% of the K.S.I. collisions. That's a lot of distraction.

The article in Bicycling that I cited early has rather a lot more detail on how bad distracted driving is and how severe its impact can get:

One large study by Zendrive, based on 180 billion miles of driver data, concluded that that 88 percent of trips by U.S. drivers involve smartphone use, with an average of 3.5 minutes per hour. And research by the automaker Volvo indicates that 60 percent of drivers admit to regular texting while in motion. Given that a car going 50 miles per hour will travel 220 feet in 3 seconds, those are not reassuring data points. One study from Oregon State University found that glancing away from the road for two seconds or more increases the risk of a crash between four to 24 times. And numerous other studies (like this and this) document an astonishing use of social media apps, texting, even video consumption on the road.

Does anyone believe that high-visibility clothing will matter when a 3.5 tonne Lincoln Navigator moving at 65kph in a 50kph zone is being operated by someone who's watching a soccer game?

Today's use of smart phones and tablets is being increasingly augmented by touch displays mounted in the the car's console. Just for laughs, here's a screen shot of such a console from January of 2018 in a concept car unveiled at an auto show. No distraction here!

smart phone pedestrian zombie

And then there are the pedestrian smart phone zombies. Head down, marching into the street with a phone 20cm from their face and like as not, headphones in. This much-maligned subspecies is frequently cited by drivers whenever a pedestrian is hit. Clearly, these pedestrians can be doing more to protect themselves. But it's not clear that they represent a large issue in the city, when the statistics say there were fewer "inattentive" pedestrians hit between 2008—2018 than there were pedestrians struck on the "sidewalk or shoulder" by a margin of 24 to 18. Both of these numbers pale compared to the 88 that were struck while "crossing with the right of way". That figure of 18 was from a total of 351 (5%), but as Gil Meslin notes in the posted stats: "inattentive" doesn't always mean using electronics, it can mean walking a dog or escorting a child.

It would make more sense to ban drunk walking. According to the coroner's report, more than 25% of fatal collisions involved a pedestrian who had consumed alcohol or drugs:

In 28% of the pedestrians, toxicology was positive for drugs, alcohol or both. While 2% of pedestrians struck by a motor vehicle will die, this rises to 48% for intoxicated pedestrians.

more cyclists (and friends)

When I said earlier that cyclists aren't where drivers expect them, the first issue is how many more cyclists there are now compared to the past. As someone who started riding a bike in Toronto in the mid-90's I've seen an incredible change in the numbers of riders, the number of commuters using a bike, and the times of year at which cyclists ride. Cyclists are far more likely to take to the streets now, and less likely to stick with the parks. As the "network" of bike lines creeps out from the city center, they're also more likely to be traveling long distances. I've come to learn that my own 20-25km commutes are considered fairly modest by at least half of the bike commuters out there.

That article in Bicycling listed five reasons that more cyclists are dying. Number four was: There Are More Cyclists on the Roads. They cite a survey that says that in the six-year period to 2016, the number of bike commuters in urban centers increased by nearly 80%.

At the same time, we now have a variety of other users of bike lanes with: skateboards; inline skates; "razor"-style kick-powered scooters; e-scooters; e-bikes; mobility assistance devices for those with limited physical mobility; one-wheeled skateboard-like gizmos; long-boards; and wheeled skis. These so-called micromobility vehicles are joined by joggers alone or in some numbers, and even runners who may be pushing sports strollers. There is a label for this sort of mixed use "bike lane", which is slow lane. While a welcome sight for the obvious benefits that all that physical exercise and personal freedom represents, it further changes the use of the roads at a time when one segment is doubling down on the internal combustion engine.

Moreover, cyclists (and friends) are subject to the same effects that cause frustration in drivers: the poor behavior of others; the every-increasing volume of traffic and therefor congestion; the culture in the city that expects on-time arrival at work, etc. This has the same effect on cyclists as it does drivers: aggression and impatience go up and corners get cut. It's a regular occurrence to see cyclists attempt to pass motor vehicles on the right even when those larger vehicles are themselves attempting a right turn. It's common to see cyclists blow through stop signs and even to scoot through red lights–mirroring the behavior they witness in cars.

Pedestrians of course factor into this when a driver or user of a micromobility vehicle collides with a pedestrian. The issue here is not that the pedestrian isn't wearing enough reflective clothing, it's that they're increasingly lost in the jostle between two groups of vehicle user that are already at odds and impatiently vying for space on crowded roads.

part two: control efficacy

This diagram, from twitter user @RantyHighwayman shows the efficacy of different types of controls a city can place on the environment, ranging from the most effective to the least. This explanatory diagram comes to us from the world of health and safety risk management.


The concept of eliminating cars from our streets calls to mind the "War on cars", as if some sort of elimination were to happen by government fiat as it has (successfully) in cities designed long before the car was invented. That's not going to work in a young city like Toronto which was largely built with the car in mind. Nor is banning SUV's going to work-what politician could survive banning the most popular segment of personal motor-vehicle in our car-obsessed culture? But some forms of elimination can be effective. Cities such as Vienna have worked tirelessly to accommodate drivers while lessening the disruption that comes from things like on-street car storage. The goal is to eliminate the desire to use a car (to sit in traffic in a CO2-spewing anachronism while slowly melting down in frustration, yet again). The common refrain we hear in Toronto is that the city was "built for cars". Setting aside the inanity of building a human city for cars instead of humans, we can look to major cities such as London for guidance on how this is done effectively without impairing drivers. For instance, there is a plan in London that calls for the implementation of "healthy streets", as follows:

London is investing significant resources in street projects that make walking, biking, and transit more appealing, with an explicit objective to reduce “the dominance of motorized traffic” in the city. In addition to bus lanes and bike lanes, the treatments include benches, street trees, and public art. By 2041, the goal is to eliminate three million car trips per day, or a reduction of 10-15 percent.

This is specific in scope and contains a measurable outcome.


Toronto has to get its act together on transit. We need more bus rapid transit systems, which can implemented quickly and at low cost. We need the much-discussed subway lines that have never materialized. And we need them now.

engineering controls

The recommendations section of the Ontario coroner's report stated:

A “complete streets” approach should be adopted to guide the development of new communities and the re-development of existing communities in Ontario. Complete streets should be designed to be safe, convenient and comfortable for every user, regardless of transportation mode, physical ability or age.

"Complete streets" might be hard to understand but it simply means there's room for safe use of streets by all users: pedestrians, drivers, and those on micromobility devices. This means narrow car lanes, slow-lanes for bikes and scooters and so on, and the removal of free/subsidized on-street car storage in favor of livable, walkable wide sidewalks with lighting and "street furniture" beyond garish a-frames and the odd half-dead tree.

The five-point plan in London calls simply for safer intersections: "Transport for London has systematically identified and redesigned 21 of the city’s 73 most dangerous intersections so far." This is simple and effective risk control. Redesigned intersections slow traffic, remove dangerous angles between drivers and pedestrians, and focus driver attention on pedestrians. The good news is that Toronto has begun doing this with the elimination of sweeping curves that allow cars to negotiate corners at high speed. In Beaches-East York, where 32 Spokes is active, an example exists at Woodbine Ave and O'Connor Ave.

administrative controls

Laws to manage traffic, and regular enforcement of those laws. It's that simple. Also, notice how far down the list this type of control really is? Here's what it can look like.

The London plan calls for 20 mph zones. That's 32 kph. Notice how the speed of a vehicle involved in a collision with a pedestrian impacts the safety outcome for the pedestrian:

Put another way, these are the ranges of outcomes likely when a pedestrian is struck by a vehicle traveling at a certain speed.

In Ontario, the Office of the Chief Coroner for Ontario recommended a speed limit of 30 kph for residential streets and 40 kph for all others way back in 2012. This was derided at the time but has been debated in council and is slowly being implemented in an ad-hoc way. Obviously this should be made consistent and should be implemented with haste.

personal protective equipment

This is the final category of safety controls from the diagram above. It's in the "do last" category. It includes high-visibility clothing for pedestrians, cyclists, and other non-automotive users of our roads. It's last because it's simply not as effective as any of the other controls listed above. Again, this isn't opinion, this is the way health and safety risk management is performed as a discipline. For Toronto to be focusing on this sort of control shows how terrible we've been at implementing controls that actually matter.


A reader supplied this image as a way of tying the control hierarchy diagram back to cycling/pedestrian safety.

High-visibility clothing for pedestrians is a desperate recommendation from a failed civic and provincial leadership that has been unwilling to tackle the hard things that would make more sense. Perhaps they would rather keep their jobs and perks. Perhaps it's a question of the undue influence of moneyed interests such as developers and the auto lobby (which yes, is a real thing). Perhaps they just don't care, though some seem to. The inescapable fact is that they're asking those of us who walk or ride the streets of Toronto to take responsibility for our survival in this city in the absence of all the more effective controls that could be brought to bear.

about me:

My name is Michael Werneburg, I'm a member of 32 Spokes. Most of the above was based on my six years of regular advocacy for cycling and pedestrian safety in the city. During that time, I have spoken with city councilors, city planners, local activists, drivers, residents whose homes and parked cars have been hit by out-of-control cars, and residents who have themselves been left crippled by cars. I've attended numerous public meetings on evolving street designs, and I've provided feedback to the city's traffic engineers on bike lane design. I have collided with two delivery vehicles while cycling, I've been knocked off my feet by a driver while walking, and I've been knocked off my bike while waiting at a red light. I served for three years on the board of directors for Cycle Toronto. I also have a somewhat relevant academic background with a degree in Geography (including urban geography) and a graduate degree in Risk Management. I wear high-visibility clothing while cycling because the libertarian-experiment-run-amok in which I live demands it.

I am also a father to two young children and I no longer consider this city suitable safe to raise them here. As I write this I am exploring the option of moving to a major global city where the ratio of dead pedestrians to total population is nearly thirty times better than Toronto's awful annual standard.

Find us on Facebook and Twitter. Or send an email to 32spokesTO@gmail.com.