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Canadian Urbanism Uncovered

Trusting Traffic: The Fantasy and Fatality of PEI Drivers

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CHARLOTTETOWN – I’ve got trust issues.  Years of training and indoctrination, which were to have prepared me to be an active participant in my personal locomotion, have been shattered in recent months.  It wasn’t intentional.  Far from it, in fact.  In spite of my sometimes rabble-rousing tendencies, I prefer a world with structure, a framework, some sort of shared agreement of civility.  In retrospect, and to quote Cool Hand Luke, “what we have here is failure to communicate.”

The mobility of society is based on a sacred oath that simply states that everyone will follow the same set of common rules at all times so, baring tragedy, we know what to expect when we interact with one another.  Whether as a pedestrian, a cyclist, a motorist, or some sort of Segway-powered anomaly, the rules are common and understood.  It is that oath that has been broken in my new provincial home.

Not everyone understands this sacred oath.  It wasn’t until 2004 that I was able to articulate the reality of this covenant myself, a revelation that I owe to Hans Monderman, rest his soul.  A chance encounter with an article in Wired! magazine would realign my perspective on traffic, and our interactions with it, forever.  It is, with that knowledge, that I realize Monderman would never have survived his famous backward stroll into traffic had he tried such an outlandish stunt on the roads of Charlottetown instead of his more gentle Holland.  When Monderman redesigned an intersection in the town of Drachten (coincidentally with a population of 40,000, much like Charlottetown) he deviated so violently from the cloistered world of signs and signals that aim to protect those motorized and those not, that people thought him more a mad scientist than master traffic planner.  In my eyes though, he was brilliant!

Here are the hard facts.  In 2006 Canada had 8.9 traffic fatalities per 100,000 residents.  Contrast that to PEI’s 18.8 fatalities per 100,000 residents, the second highest per capita rate in the country.  When we only look at the licensed drivers, that rate jumps to 26.8 per 100,000, though still in second place, trailing the Yukon.  Not to be outdone though, Islanders jump to the number one spot with an even 25 fatalities per billion vehicle kilometers.  In every instance, Islanders are being killed off at a rate that is at least double, if not almost triple, the rates for the rest of Canada.

I have had the pleasure, and sometimes terror, of driving in some of the most congested and frantic metropolises in North America.  Toronto, Detroit, New York, Las Vegas and Los Angeles are all on my driving resume.  In each area one quickly becomes attuned to the pulse of the traffic.  Whether frantic and restless like Detroit, or fevered yet deadlocked like Toronto, each flow has a pulse of its own.  It the absence of consistency that throws an entire system into disarray.

I should make it abundantly clear that I love my adopted hometown.  It is those things that drive me the most crazy about PEI that make it so endearing.  This is, of course, with one notable exception—the drivers.  Never before have I encountered such a haphazard, irreverent and irresponsible subset of citizens in such a confined space.  I wish I could say that I was being overly harsh, that it’s a broad generalization based on the behaviour of a few miscreant motorists, but the tendency to flaunt the rules of the road with wanton abandon is pervasive and problematic.  That is not to say that all Islanders are poor drivers.  PEI simply has a higher percentage of poor drivers as demonstrated by our fatality statistics.

This brings us back to this issue of trust that I have developed since relocating to the Island 18-months ago.  We were, at first, mesmerized by the quaint style of motoring.  Stopping at cross-walks, or to let a loitering pedestrian cross mid-block, seemed all too surreal to our Ontario-trained senses.

In the past 18 months I have experienced drivers running red lights simply because they didn’t feel like waiting any longer, traffic be damned!  I have witnessed countless cars, trucks, utility vehicles and even school buses run the stop sign at the three-way intersection that doubles as a school bus stop for my children — even as we all stood at the side of the road, sans sidewalks, and watched in amazement.  I have watched drivers swerve around left-turning vehicles, using the designated cycling lanes as impromptu passing lanes.  I have even watched, much to my dismay, a distracted driver run a cyclist off the road without so much as a tap of the brakes. (Check out this handy-dandy Google Map for locations of these events, and then add your own!)

Let’s get back to that issue of trust.  Island drivers are their own worst enemy.  Their conscious and it has to be a conscious choice to drive full-tilt through a three-way intersection with vehicles, pedestrians, or both, waiting for their turn to proceedendangers both drivers and their fellow citizens.  More importantly, it violates that trust that we are instilled with from a young age that people stop at stop signs, red lights, and for emergency vehicles.  It is that violation of trust that is so maddening and disappointing.

I am, by nature, a fairly trusting fellow.  I like to believe that people are inherently good, that there is hope in the world, and that peace really does have a chance.  Those ideals make the reality that some Islanders turn into raving lunatics when behind the wheel of an automobile so much harder to tolerate and accept.  I don’t have an answer to the problem of the auto superiority complex that consumes so many drivers here, but something has to change before PEI overtakes the Yukon in traffic fatalities.  Perhaps it is the words of a fellow Islander that haunt me to the point of breaking: when complaining about the disregard for the stop signs in my neighbourhood this well-meaning Islander responded, “Maybe we should just take the signs down so people don’t have to run them anymore.”  Yeah, I’ve got trust issues.

photo by Jerry “Woody”



  1. I lived in PEI for 5 years in late 80’s. A really elderly man use to drive the Trans Can Hwy everyday and turn into his drive and not signal. It was brought to his attention as to how dangerous it was not to signal. His comment “Well everybody round here knows my car and where I live so I don’t need to signal”.True story. Funny but true!

  2. Coincidentally, this season of the Canada’s Worst Driver features an atrocious driver from Charlottetown…

  3. I biked that stretch of N.River marked on the map to and from work all of last summer without incident, even during construction. I did not that the four way stop at McGill and N.River is rarely observed. Islanders definitely consider signs, more than most I believe, to be a suggestion up to the discretion of the driver! Dangerous especially with all the out-of-towners

  4. Thank you!  I see more illegal passes, confused roundabout users and speeders on the odd weekend in PEI than I do in a year on the mainland.  And funny, too, since they don’t have to contend with the steep grades, sharp turns, high speed limits and metro traffic that other areas do.