Sometimes in our haste to save a life, we take a life. That is a tragedy that we need to avoid. But regrettably this happens too often. Sometimes while responding to an emergency police, fire or ambulance personnel may themselves become involved in a collision and questions about their actions can be emotionally charged. Emergency personnel are placed on a high pedestal when, in fact, they are no different than anyone else who is capable of making an unfortunate error. And amongst the heroes there are also incompetent, lazy and dishonest individuals who dishonour their profession but, on occasion, are protected by a system that is challenged in removing them. Instead of working at transparency the system sometimes works at hiding misdeeds from the public. This contributes to conspiracy theories and the growth of persons who can no longer approach an incident with an open mind.
When a 22-year member of Toronto Fire Services struck a child in a pedestrian crossing on December 16, 2019 on Oakwood Avenue in Toronto opinions about his character and actions will remain throughout his life much like the serious injuries to the child. The question remains, what did the driver do to deserve being charged with 1) Careless Driving Causing Bodily Harm and 2) Passing A Stopped Vehicle At A Crossover? If his actions are not deserving of these charges does he not have a right to clear his name? But history tells us that there will be little further public knowledge of how these charges are resolved.
There appears to be an obvious contradiction in the facts with respect to the second charge: Passing A Stopped Vehicle At A Crossover. When an emergency vehicle approaches traffic must pull over to the right and stop. But on Oakwood Ave there is no additional width of roadway to allow a vehicle to pull over to the right. So if a vehicle stops then it must stop within the travel lane. So when the fire truck approaches the only way that it can pass the stopped vehicle is to go around it via the opposing lane. But according to the charge he cannot pass a stopped vehicle near a pedestrian crosswalk. So what do police expect the driver of the fire truck to do? Is he supposed to stop behind the stopped vehicle indefinitely simply because the vehicle has stopped at a pedestrian crossover? As stated the charge does not seem to make sense.
With respect to Careless Driving, the Ontario Highway Traffic Act (HTA) definition reads as follows:
“Every person is guilty of the offence of driving carelessly who drives a vehicle or street car on a highway without due care and attention or without reasonable consideration for other persons using the highway…”
Thus it will need to be proven that the driver of the fire truck drove “without due care and attention or without reasonable consideration for other persons using the highway“. The reality is that any driver of an emergency vehicle that is travelling at heightened speed toward an emergency situation could be viewed as driving “without due care or reasonable consideration”. The design of our vehicles and roadways are such that they are meant to protect persons travelling at reasonable speeds, where drivers adjust those speeds to take into account the road geometry, visibility limitations, weather conditions, ability to detect and perceive and a myriad of other factors that deal with normal driving situations. They are not designed to deal with a driver trying to reach a destination as quickly as possible, no different than the driver who believes he may be late for work, wants to show off to his friends of simply decides to ignore basic road safety. While advanced driver training can improve driver abilities this does not mean that drivers of emergency vehicles are like the Incredible Hulk, suddenly becoming super-human when called upon. There are limitations to their abilities that even highly-qualified persons fail to detect when the need to perform a heroic deed takes up their full attention.
What is obvious is that drivers of police vehicles tend to speed to an emergency more so than fire or ambulance. Leading to the question whether we value catching a thief or an aggressor more than saving a life. There are numerous incidents documented by Gorski Consulting where police vehicles have been driven at extreme speeds, resulting in collisions, injuries and sometimes deaths. Yet the incidence of fire/ambulance speeding resulting in collisions is less frequent.
While some will find fault with such actions there is always a balance that needs to be maintained. If emergency vehicles do not reach a critical situation persons may die. We can complain about these lunatics on wheels until we are the ones who need immediate help and suddenly we are appreciative of the quick response. In the vast majority of instances emergency personnel do not drive like maniacs to gratify some pleasure principle but they are putting their own lives, reputations and jobs at risk for someone else’s benefit. So we need to be careful and study each incident with wisdom and detail.
Looking at the current incident involving the fire truck we need to consider what evidence there might be that his actions were careless and beyond the norm of typical emergency vehicle actions. Unfortunately, but typically, the information available to evaluate this question is scarce. What we have are several photographs taken by various news agencies showing the fire truck and only a scant description of what happened.
A single photo was available showing the fire truck at its final rest position and the rear of the truck is just past the crosswalk. It is likely that the police will have access to a system that monitor’s the truck’s speed and thus the truck’s speed as it approached the crosswalk should be available to their investigation. But that information will not be available to the public. Thus the final rest position of the fire truck is the only means by which we can estimate its maximum speed.
General estimates suggest that the fire truck travelled about 15 metres past the crosswalk. If it is assumed that the driver applied maximum braking over the distance of travel then we might conclude that the fastest the truck could be going as it passed through the crosswalk was about 45 km/h. The possibility is that the truck was not being braked to a maximum level, or that the braking occurred sometime after reaching the crosswalk and therefore the approach speed could be something less than 45 km/h. Maximum braking over the noted travel distance might not have occurred if the driver did not detect the pedestrian in time to activate the brakes before impact. While skid marks may indicate the presence of maximum braking there are many occasions where maximum braking occurs without visible skid marks when a road surface is damp or wet. Sometimes maximum deceleration can occur just before full lock-up of a wheel and this is the benefit of anti-lock braking. Some trucks are becoming equipped with such anti-lock braking. And often we see tire marks from some tires but not others, or the length of one tire mark is greater than others. So whether or not tire marks were visible along the fire truck’s path does not necessarily resolve the issue.
News media indicated that the child was struck with the front surface of the truck. Given the tall and somewhat flat front surface of the truck such an impact would involve a “forward projection” trajectory of the child and this scenario allows for the child’s throw distance to be used as a good estimate of the truck’s speed.
Also the relationship between the rest position of the fire truck and the rest position of the child would also provide further collaboration as to the extent of braking. This is so because, if little or no braking occurred the truck would pass by the resting position of the child and the child would located underneath or behind the truck. We know that a tumbling human body might decelerate at a rate of about 0.5g and this is also near to the maximum braking capability of a loaded fire truck. Thus, all things being equal, if the truck was braked to its maximum capability from the instant of impact then the rest position of the child should be close to the rest position of the front end of the fire truck.
The extent of injury to the child also provides a general approximation of the impact speed. Given that the child sustained serious but not critical injuries this tends to support the notion that the fire truck was travelling slower than the maximum of 45 km/h. While pedestrian injury prediction from vehicle speed contains some variance and uncertainty, investigators who are intimately familiar with a large volume of collision and injury data can come to some broad conclusions.
The front end of a fire truck is not pedestrian friendly. The front end is likely to be stiffer than that of a car or light truck. And there are jagged edges of metal that are not designed to take pedestrian impact. Increasingly the front ends of cars and light trucks are designed in consideration of the typical impact patterns of pedestrians and so injury severity at a similar speed would be less in comparison to an impact by the fire truck. The differences in mass ( car vs fire truck) of the striking vehicles is not relevant for pedestrian impacts. So, overall, given the scant information that is available, it is likely that the fire truck was travelling below the maximum of 45 km/h. Again, police should have event data evidence obtained from systems on the fire truck, or systems connected with the fire truck, that should provide more detailed evidence of speed.
We might ask: What is it about this likely moderate speed that would indicate that the fire truck driver was careless? It was noted in various news media that the fire truck passed a stopped vehicle at the crosswalk. So a scenario like this could generate the noted concern regarding carelessness. Coincidentally, a Google Maps view of the collision site provides a situation where a tall delivery van is shown at the crosswalk, as noted in the frame below. This would be a similar view that the fire truck driver would have upon travelling toward the crosswalk. Although the truck driver would be seated in a high position relative to a car, it is likely the the Google camera is positioned even higher thus the view in the frame is not exactly the same.
What we can see in the frame is that two pedestrians are crossing the crossroad (Rosemount Ave) near the right part of the frame. Although this is not this same direction of travel as the struck child, it never-the-less provides some perspective with respect to heights and visibility involved.
In another Google Maps view shown below we can see the same delivery vehicle and the view is a short time before the first frame. This second frame shows that the view of the two pedestrians is blocked by the delivery van.
What is apparent in the above frame is the lack of visibility, past the left front corner of the delivery van, of pedestrians that may be walking in the crosswalk and into the lane where the fire truck would be passing the stopped vehicle. Given that an 11-year-old female would not be very tall, even if the stopped vehicle was a passenger car, it would be difficult or impossible to see the child over the roof of that car. So it is quite likely that the fire truck driver could not see the child pedestrian until the very last instant before impact.
The delay in detecting, identifying and reacting to the presence of a danger is constantly debated in the collision reconstruction community. This is perhaps the area of greatest misunderstanding and the area whereby we can make mistakes in understanding human behaviour. In the context of motor vehicle collisions, when a driver is prepared for a potential emergence of a danger and the driver is focused and prepared to contact a brake pedal, that action of braking can begin in as short a time as 0.5 seconds. And so many games are played by defense and prosecution at trial to demonstrate that this short delay should, or should not, be applied to their current case.
Alternatively, there could be situations where drivers must look in various and conflicting directions, or they must make quick decisions about choices of avoidance. In some instances a very small portion of the dangerous object (pedestrian) is detected and it cannot be identified until a larger portion comes into view. In other instances various lighting and contrast conditions exist where the object that is to be detected is more difficult to detect. The detection may be so difficult that, after an impact, the driver may say “What just happened? Did I just hit something?” Not knowing that an impact occurred has caused many instances where a driver has driven a considerable distance, evaluating and arguing with the evidence in their mind, before coming to a stop and returning to the area of suspected impact.
It can also be noted that roadway design standards assume a perception response delay of 2.5 seconds. This accounts for a large percentage of instances where drivers are given enough time to respond.
All these complications do not lead to a straightforward answer with respect to what kind of delay should be applied when an incident is complicated.
Yet, on face value, the present collision with the fire truck and child pedestrian should not be complicated. We should believe that, once the child “came into view” there should have been a very quick response on the part of the fire truck driver. But what is a very quick response? At 45 km/h the fire truck would be travelling about 12.5 metres every second. Thus even at a perception-response delay of just 0.5 seconds the truck would travel over 6 metres before a response could be initiated.
But there is more. Maximum braking of a fire truck, like all heavy trucks, does not start instantaneously. Pedal pressure that sends air through the air lines can have a considerable delay before reaching all wheels and we might add another 0.5 seconds or more before maximum braking can be achieved. Thus the belief that the driver could achieve maximum braking by the time the front end of the fire truck reached the crosswalk could be in doubt. And therefore that maximum speed of 45 km/h could also be in doubt. So what would we say if the fire truck was actually travelling only 40 or 35 km/h as he approached the crosswalk? Is this a careless act of driving “without due care and attention or without reasonable consideration”?
We can also see that the crosswalk contains overhead lights that could have been activated as the fire truck approached. So was the fire truck obligated to stop for the flashing lights before proceeding forward? Most likely Yes. This is because such a requirement is set out when fire trucks approach a red traffic signal. They may pass through the red traffic signal only after stopping and ensuring that it is safe to do so. That is the written law as noted in the HTA Section 144 (20):
“…a driver of an emergency vehicle, after stopping the vehicle, may proceed without a green indication being shown if it is safe to do so.”
In the reality of practical functioning, essentially no emergency vehicles come to a full stop before proceeding through a red traffic signal. This is an observation made on numerous occasions. However it could be acceptable to reduce speed to a low level, depending on the individual circumstances of each case, and then proceed through a red signal. Again this is a matter of balancing the increased danger of a collision versus reaching an emergency with minimal delay.
One the other hand a pedestrian should be able to hear and see the approach of a fire truck more easily than a driver who is seated in an enclosed space. It has to be questioned why this child pedestrian, who was old enough to understand the meaning of emergency sirens and lights, would walk out into the path of the fire truck. In the outside environment the sound of a siren from a fire truck is extremely loud and it should have been detected by the child. More frequently children, and adults, walk with ear buds in their ears as they listen to music and other content on a mobile device. This is a major problem because they cannot hear important warnings that affect their safety. The usage of such a device by the child pedestrian could explain why she appeared to be unaware of the fire truck’s approach.
In the end there are many unknowns about this incident and they will continue to be unknown to the public. The point that is rarely discussed is the degree to which these unknowns affect the public’s perceptions and understandings about the actions of emergency personnel. Lack of information is what leads to the development of erred opinions and conclusions. There is little concern in official circles about these developments. Emergency agencies spend considerable resources to create a positive image in the public’s eye. This includes speaking engagements, involvement in charitable organizations and publicity that shows the good actions emergency personnel. Yet when a traffic incident occurs that raises questions about the actions of those personnel there is no effort made to provide the public with reasonably detailed information to correct misunderstandings that often occur. Rumours are spread that are inflammatory, especially in the social media, because there is little factual information to douse those rumours.
In the end the administrators of emergency agencies are sometimes the agencies’ worst enemies. They do little to ensure that the reputations of their agencies are protected in those instances where their actions appear questionable. Where a fire, ambulance or police member has made a mistake it needs to be identified as such and the public needs to be reminded that no one functions in a vacuum of perfection. When attempts are made to hide those mistakes the public is not so naive to fail to recognize it. The old adage “Honesty is the best policy” is not just a cute saying. The bite of its lacking can be infectious.