Allison Hanes: Slow down, for kids' sakes | Montreal Gazette

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Allison Hanes: Slow down, for the sake of our kids

Dangerous driving in school zones is a symptom of a bigger problem that the Quebec government must step in to fix.

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There’s nothing in life as precious as our children. And as parents we would do just about anything to keep our kiddos safe from harm, even if it means fending off attacking wildlife with our bare hands or taking their place as hostages.

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But other people’s children? Pshaw. Not our problem, right?

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Few of us would ever admit to such a callous attitude. But plenty of folks drive that way on a daily basis.

School zones have become war zones where our children risk life and limb trying to get to class. Crossing guards put their bodies on the line as impatient motorists honk and harangue them. Some 96 per cent of drivers speed near schools where the limit is supposed to be 30 km/h, according to recent CAA-Quebec spot checks. Vehicles illegally pass stopped school buses at least 30,000 a day, according to another 2018 study.

The disregard for the lives of all kids — our own or someone else’s — is appalling.

We’ve seen the tragic consequences of this daily incivility in Montreal recently, where 20 pedestrians were killed last year, including two children. That’s the second-highest toll in a decade, after 24 deaths in 2019. But after a 7-year-old Ukrainian refugee was killed on her way to school in December and a brigadier was struck and injured after the return to class in January, we’ve been shaken from our complacency.

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On Tuesday, parents and children across Montreal — and other cities around the province — marched along roads near schools during the morning rush hour, holding signs and ringing bells. The demonstrators came out to take back the streets and signal that enough is enough.

Signs calling for increased pedestrian safety hang on the fence outside École Fernand Séguin in Montreal on Jan. 24, 2023.
Signs calling for increased pedestrian safety hang on the fence outside École Fernand Séguin in Montreal on Jan. 24, 2023. Photo by Allen McInnis /Montreal Gazette

Local protests in Ville-Marie borough demanding action at the city level quickly followed the death of Mariia Legenkovska last month. Within days the city responded by installing plastic bollards at the intersection where she was killed. Soon after Mayor Valérie Plante announced additional measures to secure more than 40 sites frequented by children in 13 boroughs, including school zones.

Since then, the mobilization for pedestrian safety has spread well beyond Montreal. This is an issue that resonates in urban centres, suburban communities and small towns alike. Though still a local matter, there are wider implications that require a broader response. So after years of aiming calls for action on municipal governments, activists are now looking to the province for a strategy.

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What might that look like? Quebec runs the public security, transportation, education and justice ministries. Each of them need to join forces and make road safety a core mission.

Toughening the highway safety code to make penalties and fines for motorists who exhibit recklessness in school zones would be a good place to start. Clearly the current deterrents are not enough.

But stricter laws are useless without more robust enforcement. If municipal police forces need to up their game, so, too, does the Sûreté du Québec. According to their year-end statistics, 36 pedestrians died on its territory in 2022, up from 30 in 2021.

Since the Quebec government operates schools, it should also take more responsibility for making their surroundings safer, whether through the design and placement of new facilities or in helping reconfigure the grounds of existing institutions. Being able to walk or bike to school are gauges of a healthy lifestyle and livable neighbourhoods. But if parents fear their children might be hurt strolling or cycling to class, some might choose to drive them instead, thus worsening the problem.

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Provincial roads and highways must be planned with more vulnerable road users in mind, much like cities have been doing with the Vision Zero strategy. People, including children, walk, bike or have to get off buses on busy rural routes, too.

Perhaps the security of pedestrians and cyclists needs to be written into our human rights code, to focus our efforts.

Hopefully some of the motorists whizzing by all the protesters Tuesday looked into the faces of the kids on the sidewalk and saw a reflection of their own. It is worth pointing out that the driver charged in Legenkovska’s death was a dad himself and his family could face grave consequences for his alleged actions. If grasping at the heartstrings or guilt-tripping other parents is what it takes to get motorists to pay attention, let it be a reminder to slow down — for the sake of all our kids.

The take-home message here is simple: If we want our own children to make it to school without suffering bodily harm, we have to drive so that we’re looking out for everyone else’s, too.

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