Eugenia Liautaud was a happy, active 85-year-old who loved to read and travel. She made friends easily and enjoyed walking the streets of the Pont-Viau area of Laval, Que., where she lived.
On Dec. 3, just before 5 p.m., a car hit her in the early winter darkness as she crossed De la Concorde Boulevard. She died at the scene.
The road is wide where she was struck. Cars drive quickly in the area and there is no crosswalk.
“It might have been set up better,” her son, Manes Liautaud, said in an interview. “There’s a bus stop there, it’s kind of a busy place. There’s a big parking lot, there’s a store, a strip mall.”
The intersection was designed for cars to access the nearby businesses, not pedestrians. Experts say few of the streets in the Montreal area were built with pedestrian safety in mind.
Over two weeks in early December, at least eight pedestrians died in Quebec, hit by cars, SUVs or trucks. One of them, seven-year-old Mariia Lehenkovska, a Ukrainian refugee, was hit on her way to school in the Centre-Sud neighbourhood just east of Montreal’s downtown.
On Tuesday evening, it happened again in Laval, the largely suburban municipality north of Montreal. Another 85-year-old died while crossing Laurentides Boulevard near Proulx Street, only a few blocks away from where Liautaud died.
“We no longer want to treat pedestrian deaths as part of the rules of the game,” said Sandrine Cabana-Degani, the director of Piétons Quebec, a group that advocates for pedestrians. “All over Quebec, people are dying while walking.”
The frequency of pedestrian deaths has drawn attention to driver behaviour and the design of Quebec’s urban roads. Experts and advocates point to traffic calming measures as an example of how streets can be made safer for pedestrians.
At the intersection where Lehenkovska was killed, for example, the city has erected temporary bollards and larger, more obvious stop signs. The plastic cylinders make the road appear narrow to drivers in the hope of slowing them down.
This is traffic calming theory in action.
The road is sending the wrong message
“Often, problems are related to how drivers read the road and the road is sending out the wrong message,” said Paul Mackey, a street designer and president of Safestreet, a consulting firm that helps municipalities design safer roads.
“A street that is straight and wide you’ll have a tendency to drive more quickly on it. It’s not a conscious decision. There are psychological factors that enter into play and you tend to drive more quickly on a wide straight street.”
Mackey uses the tools of traffic calming to slow vehicles down and make drivers more aware of their environment. The core idea, he said, is that street design affects driver behaviour.
If a neighbourhood is dense, residential and filled with children, the streets should reflect that — they may be narrow, providing safe margins for children to play nearby, and include speed bumps or other tools that slow cars down.
Mackey, who used to work at the Transport Ministry, was among the first to bring traffic calming to Quebec after a trip to the Netherlands in the 1980s. Advocates of safer streets point to the Dutch as pioneers of infrastructure designed with pedestrians and cyclists in mind.
That’s for two reasons, Mackey said: the Dutch don’t build tall buildings because of the sandy soil in their region. So, they build dense row housing that tends to absorb any public space. Streets, therefore, become an important part of public life.
The idea may seem outrageous in some Montreal neighbourhoods, but in the Netherlands, many streets are intentionally winding and narrow — which keeps traffic slow and allows some streets to remain safe for kids.
Another consequence of their sandy soil is their need to redo their streets as often as every five years, which allows them to pursue ambitious redesigns and experiments to tame traffic.
Montreal has, in recent years, been updating its streets to incorporate traffic-calming infrastructure. The work tends to overlap with infrastructure maintenance, Mackey said. When the city tears up an intersection to install new pipes, workers build curb extensions, protected bike lanes or speed bumps.
But advocates still describe the process as fatally slow — too often addressing problem areas only after someone has died.
That’s in part because traffic calming measures are expensive. The infrastructure, like curb extensions, can cost between $30,000 to $100,000 per intersection.
The measures also aren’t popular with everyone. Sometimes neighbours oppose them because traffic calming often means making more space for pedestrians at the expense of parking spaces for locals.
But there is another elephant in the room, said Mackey. The number of large vehicles on our streets is growing. Pickup trucks and SUVs are among the most popular models in Quebec.
SUVs and trucks are higher off the ground, which reduces the visibility of nearby pedestrians, and, when they are involved in accidents with pedestrians, those accidents are more often fatal, Mackey said.
No simple solutions
Pierro Hirsch, a former driving instructor in Montreal with a doctorate in public health, said there is no simple solution to prevent all pedestrian accidents.
“You want to solve the problem? At no time should anybody be driving at a speed that could kill an unprotected pedestrian when there’s a high risk of pedestrians being present. That’s your answer,” he said.
“But that’s not an answer that’s going to have any traction in any community.”
Liautaud, whose mother was killed after she was hit by a car in Laval, said he has questions about the culpability of the driver — an 80-year-old woman. Police said the driver did not see his mother and said the incident was not being investigated criminally.
“It’s their responsibility to check,” Liautaud said of the driver.
Laval police said they could offer no comment on the case as it was still under investigation. The city of Laval said it was analyzing the accident and, if necessary, would implement measures to prevent future pedestrian accidents in the area.
But even where roads are considered well-designed, pedestrian fatalities still occur. There were 43 pedestrian deaths in the Netherlands in 2021.
“The best-trained driver will make a mistake,” said Hirsch. “The best designed roadway will still find somebody who will mistake a sign.… These things happen but they’re relatively rare. And if they happen with greater frequency, then there’s a design flaw and that has to be fixed.
“A lot of our roads weren’t built for safety and certainly weren’t built for pedestrian or cycle safety.”