Warning: slippery slope up ahead

Pam Frampton
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“The reality is, Your Worship, and you’ve said time and time again, if it takes $15 million to keep the city free of snow, we’ll spend what it takes.”

— Deputy Mayor Dennis O’Keefe to Mayor Andy Wells, Jan. 21, 2008

I regret to inform His Worship that he could end up paying more than that.

And by “he,” I mean “we” — the taxpayers.

You see, despite the letters to the editor, the angry tweets on Twitter, the Facebook groups, the protests, the radio feedback complaints, pointed editorials and columns, the City of St. John’s is still not getting the message.

And the message is this:

Every winter’s day in this city, a pedestrian comes close to slipping under the wheels of a car. Every day, a motorist turns a corner and nearly mows down someone walking in the street.

One of these days, the worst-case scenario will no longer be a scenario.

I wrote those lines three years ago and the worst-case scenario may be closer than we think.

It is perilous to be a winter pedestrian in this city. That is a fact.

Here are some other facts:

In Oakville and London, Ont. — larger cities than this one, both of them — sidewalks are cleared of snow. Period. It’s city policy.

“Our mission is to provide safe roads and sidewalks during the winter season at an affordable price,” states the City of London’s website.

“The main goal of the (Winter Maintenance Program) is to provide the highest degree of vehicle and pedestrian mobility possible during inclement climate conditions experienced by London. …”

Wow — striving for pedestrian mobility in winter. What a concept. I wonder how the guy I dodged on Columbus Drive Tuesday morning during rush-hour traffic would feel about that.

Our ‘good policy’

In St. John’s, main roads near schools and hospitals are cleared first after a snowfall, and then streets with a “high volume” of pedestrian traffic are done. The sidewalks on many other streets are not done at all.

In fact, our newsroom received a call from a frustrated resident on Tuesday whose street had not even been plowed at that point.

I’m not blaming city crews for this; they carry out snowclearing in priority order as they are directed to do, and they do the best they can. It’s not the snowplow operators who determine how your tax dollars are spent.

Mayor Dennis O’Keefe told CBC Radio recently, “The policy is a good policy.”

But here’s another fact: Canadian cities that receive significant amounts of snow are becoming increasingly aware of their responsibility to keep streets safe — and that includes for pedestrians, not just motorists.

The city of Brantford, Ont., (population 93,000) is considering taking over the responsibility for clearing all of its sidewalks in order to ensure the job is done properly.

“We need to reduce accidents and injuries, not just for the safety of our residents but for the sake of our city’s finances,” Coun. David Neumann was quoted as saying in The Brantford Expositor on Feb. 9.

“There may come a time when we will have to consider clearing the sidewalks ourselves, as is done in cities like London and Oakville. I know there is a cost, but we have to pay rising costs for not addressing this.”

What are the rising costs he’s talking about?

Why, lawsuits, of course.

Are you listening, Mayor O’Keefe?

Taking notice

And here’s another fact: expect the notion of municipal culpability to raise its nasty little head during the court case for the man charged in the horrible hit-and-run incident on Topsail Road recently when two women were struck and critically injured as they walked in the road.

No one is saying that was the city’s fault, but you can bet the accused’s lawyer took quick note of the fact that the sidewalks on Topsail Road were snow-covered at the time.

And if the message is still not getting through, perhaps the mayor might look online for a copy of a Toronto Sun article from Sept. 28, 2010, when the city of Toronto was found “grossly negligent” in not clearing a laneway where a pedestrian slipped, fell and was injured in 1999.

The city appealed the ruling and lost.

“During the case,” reporter Jonathan Jenkins wrote in The Sun, “(lawyer Alan) Preyra successfully argued the city was responsible for keeping lanes clear of snow in the same way it must keep roads and sidewalks clear. The judge agreed and awarded his client $34,000.”

That’s despite the fact that Toronto has a bylaw which says residents have to clear the sidewalks in front of their houses or pay a fine.

As the lawyer who won the case noted, “That just doesn’t cut the mustard anymore.”

Clearly the justice system agrees.

And, the lawyer added, “The ramifications of this — for cities across Canada — are huge.”

So, as it stands, St. John’s can either come up with the money to clear all streets and sidewalks in a timely manner, or it can wait for the lawsuits to start filing in.

Either way, we’ll pay, but surely it’d be less painful for all concerned to make citizens’ safety Priority No. 1.

Pam Frampton is The Telegram’s  story editor. She can be reached by email at pframpton@thetelegram.com.

Twitter: pam_frampton

Organizations: CBC Radio, Toronto Sun, The Sun

Geographic location: City of London, Oakville, London, Ont. Topsail Road Toronto Brantford Canada

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Recent comments

  • Bob
    February 21, 2011 - 06:14

    Private contractors have equipment that is more maneuverable than than a plow attached to a truckload of sand. Does city hall employ contractors during snowstorms or is snowclearing the private domain of unionized city workers?

  • Anon
    February 21, 2011 - 00:25

    safety issues don't matter until toddlers, infants or children get killed. Once the media makes it all about the children, the problem is dealt with. How do you think they managed to keep booze and cigarettes legal and weed illegal all these years? They make it about children instead of common sense.

  • Doyourhomework
    February 20, 2011 - 20:52

    This is the kind of shoddy journalism that makes me not want to buy the Telegram. How about painting the whole picture Pam, not just the pieces that suit your column! London, Ontario has the SECOND HIGHEST PROPERTY TAXES in the country!! And how do I know that, I used to live there. Residents there pay $800 more on average than residents in St. John's. That'll buy a lot of snowclearing. In fact I think the City should increase everyone's taxes $800 and tell everyone it was your bright idea! And by the way, London, Ontario has in the past two months gotten about a third to a quarter of the snow we've had. It's a lot easier to make promises when you don't live in the middle of the Atlantic. I'm not saying anything about the snowclearing here, we'd all like to see every street cleared immediately, but get real, that costs money, money Newfoundlanders aren't willing to pay. You complain about the taxes, then you complain cause you want the services, give me everything, but don't make me pay for any of it. Trust me, if City Hall set us all up with the same taxes, fees and what-not that everyone in London, Ontario pays you'd be back in here complaining again. It's a no-win situation really. So if you want to compare us to other cities, compare apples to apples, do the whole picture not just a teenie weenie bit of the story. And kudos to giving the drunk driver a pass, I'm sure drunk drivers all over the province are glad you're on their side giving them another excuse for their ignorant behaviour.

  • mary
    February 20, 2011 - 11:33

    Was the sidewalk where that horrific accident occurred ever cleared. I've walked along there and it sure has never been cleared in my opinion. I commented elsewhere that St. John's could be a healthy and environmentally friendly city if the snowclearing was improved and sidewalks properly cleaned. People would be more inclined to go out, to walk, to be active if they could get around more easily. With the high rates of obesity and heart disease in NL all communities need to step up and get with the program. St. John's needs to take some pretty big steps in my view. Clean all the sidewalks, make them walkable, make them accessable.

  • Bob
    February 19, 2011 - 08:19

    Pam, the garcons and garconettes at City Hall will never get the message. They all raise the issue at election time and they know that gets votes. That's where it dies.