Making Sense of Sudbury’s Collision Stats (guest post)

Sudbury is a university town, and it’s often called a great place to raise a family, but a recent report says drivers hit people aged 15-24 more often than any other age group in the city. In this guest post Ernst Gerhardt looks at the troubling statistics and critiques the city’s approach to solving this problem.

The city presented its pedestrian safety report last Monday (Stream video of staff’s presentation starting at 11:00 and download the report). Since then, the report’s received criticism. And on April 22, 2016 I spoke with CBC Radio’s Markus Schwabe about my concerns.

You can download my annotated pdf of the report if you’re interested in the details.

Screen Shot 2016-04-27 at 7.18.29 AM
An excerpt from Ernst Gerhardt’s marked-up version of the city’s pedestrian collision report, available here.

In this post, I focus on only one of the report’s topics: the statistic that 40% of all pedestrian collisions happen to those aged 15-24 years of age (see p. 7 of the report).

It’s a good thing that the report draws this to our attention. However, the way the report relays this information leads us away from deeper analysis of the problem. Let me explain.

As one of its Key Findings, the report states that 15-24- year-olds “are involved in almost two times as many collisions as the next highest age group” (p. 12). This seems bad, and it is. That means, on average, 24 teenagers and young adults get hit by vehicles every year in Sudbury.

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An excerpt from Ernst Gerhardt’s annotated version of the city’s pedestrian collision report.

That’s bad. But how bad? Are comparable numbers of kids getting hit by vehicles all over Ontario? No, they aren’t.

Unfortunately Sudbury is way ahead of the pack here, and ahead by a mile: in Sudbury 15-24- year-olds were struck by vehicles about twice as often as their Ontario peers.

You read that correctly: twice as often.

According to Ontario’s Road Safety Annual Reports, 16-24-year-olds accounted for 23.1% of Ontario’s pedestrian collisions. Sudbury’s rate is 40%, well above the provincial average.

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From page 28 of the Ontario Road Safety Annual Report, 2013 showing ages of persons injured in road collisions.

In terms of collisions per 100,000 people, the comparison appears even more dramatic. Ontario-wide, 16-24 year-olds were involved in 8.1 collisions/100,000 people. In Sudbury? Twice as many: 16.1 collisions/100,000 people (see Note 1 below).

Let me put this another way. If Sudbury was average in this respect, 11 fewer teenagers and young adults would be hit by vehicles each year (see Note 2 below).

Why should we compare Sudbury to the province? Well, when we do, we can see that something’s different about Sudbury. Something specific to Sudbury is causing more collisions than the Ontario average. This strikes me as crucial information to have. If something peculiar is happening to 15-24- year-old pedestrians on Sudbury’s streets, we should know about it.

Let’s return to the report. Remember that it states that 15-24- year-olds “are involved in almost two times as many collisions as the next highest age group.” The report directs its readers’ attentions to Sudbury, comparing 15-24- year-olds with another unidentified group (it’s the 25-44-year- olds).

By comparing this group with another Sudbury age-group, the report misses the opportunity to tell us whether its age-groups reflect province-wide patterns. The report misses the opportunity to assess how normal Sudbury’s pedestrian collisions are.

Missing this opportunity has some consequences. By comparing different age-groups within Sudbury, the report limits itself (and its readers) to discussing the differences between the age groups in order to account for the different rates of collisions.

The discussion of the problem then easily slips into demographic and behavioral differences between the groups. The question becomes “Why are 15-24- year-olds different than 25-44- year-olds?” rather than “Why are teens and young adults hit by vehicles twice as much in Sudbury compared to Ontario in general?”

In fact, the discussion has already taken this mistaken direction. Some have speculated that young people text more often, that young people walk more because they can’t afford cars, and that young people don’t know how to cross roads properly (skip to 48:10 in the video).

The theme of these speculations: young people are different than older (more responsible) people.

You can see how this works. The report rightly identifies a problem. But the report shapes the problem as one related to age, omitting comparison with province-wide norms. The problem becomes a function of teenage and young adult irresponsibility or distraction.

Once that discussion gets underway, a solution is inevitable: we need to educate them! If young people only knew better, they would not allow themselves to be hit by vehicles. This education plan is already in the works:

“the City’s Communication Services…[will] develop educational campaigns targeting drivers and pedestrians between the ages of 15 to 24” (p. 11 of report).

Or as was reported in a CBC news story, “the city is working on an educational strategy to help that age group [15-24 years of age]”.

It’s clear that there’s a major problem with this solution. Sudbury’s 15-24- year-olds get hit by vehicles twice as often as other 15-24- year-olds living in Ontario. Presumably, other Ontario young adults text and walk as much as their Sudbury peers. That means, then, that this age group’s higher walking and texting rates can’t explain why Sudbury’s teenagers and young adults get hit more often than their peers.

There’s another problem.

The City’s report does not identify “distracted walking” as a cause of any pedestrian collisions. The report attributes zero collisions to the phenomenon of “walking while texting.”

Safety campaigns based on assumptions, rather than evidence, are unlikely to be effective.

An action item—an entire education program—will be proposed without the report offering any evidence at all that distracted walking is an issue. The same goes for the “young people walk more than other age groups” argument.

Don’t get me wrong. It may be that these factors play some role in pedestrian collisions. But the report does not offer any evidence at all regarding them, and so it misses the opportunity to correlate those actions with other potential collision causes. And, to be clear, it’s ok not to have this data, at least for the moment. But the report should note when it lacks such data; it should note that there are plans to capture this data in some way for future reports.

In order to make evidence-based decisions, we need evidence, even from reports that are “for information only.” It’s a problem to pretend that we have the answers when we haven’t identified the problem adequately. And we need to address the problem properly if we want to reduce the number of pedestrian collisions suffered by Sudbury’s 15-24- year-olds.

I don’t know why this group is susceptible to being hit so much. The City’s report provides some clues which may warrant follow up. For example, the time of day which sees the second highest number of collisions is 3 pm – 4 pm, the time most schools let out. It would be valuable to at least see if there are any patterns regarding times of collision for this age group.

It would also be useful to consider any geographic patterns for these collisions: are there any similarities in the locations where these people are hit by vehicles? Are they near bus stops, for example? How near is the nearest crosswalk or intersection?

The answers would be useful to know, and I hope that the City begins to think seriously about answering them.


Note 1: In this post, I’ve used the 2011-13 Ontario reports as 2014 and 2015 are not yet available; I’ve used the City’s report for the same years. The City’s report uses a slightly different category (15-24 year-olds) than do the Ontario reports (Ontario reports on 10-15 year-olds, on individual years between 16 and 20 inclusive, and on 21-24 year-olds). As a result, the Ontario numbers miss the 15-year- olds which the Sudbury numbers capture. It’s impossible to ascertain how many 15-year-olds were involved with collisions in Ontario. The number could be estimated by assuming the same number of collisions as for 16-year- olds. Doing so raises the Ontario average to 8.9/100,000 people.

Note 2: the City’s report does not provide the actual numbers for these collisions. I’ve estimated them by multiplying the total number of annual collisions for these years by the 40% collision rate. The difficulty in comparing Sudbury to the province suggests that the City look to harmonize its data collection with Ontario practices.

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