Aviva makes U-turn on road safety flags after they draw ire of Toronto officials, advocates

Aviva Canada is pulling back on an initiative meant to kick-off a $5-million campaign aimed at boosting road safety after the rollout of bright flags for pedestrians to hold while crossing dangerous intersections drew the ire of both City of Toronto officials and safe streets advocates.

The insurer’s corporate social responsibility campaign, called Take Back Our Roads, started quietly a week ago when it installed yellow flags in yellow canisters, bearing the Aviva name, at nine Toronto intersections that it determined were the riskiest, based on its claims data.

But on Wednesday, city officials called on Aviva to remove all the flags noting that the insurer did not ask permission and that there was little evidence that the strategy makes crossing safer.

“Raising awareness and starting a conversation around road safety was our primary intention, and continues to be the objective of the Take Back Our Roads platform,” Aviva said in a statement late Wednesday.

‘Flags were simply one element’

“Cross safe flags were simply one element to highlight how a small change can have a big impact — be it in the physical environment or in the reaction it creates. We absolutely respect the guidance from the City of Toronto and their request to remove the flags.

“We are in active conversation with them and look forward to working together on future initiatives to improve road safety for Canadians.”

The flags were part of a broader road safety platform, in which Aviva plans to leverage its extensive data collected via the $1.4 billion in annual claims it receives on average each year, as well  as data from local government and police services.

The data would be used to identify more intersections and school zones in a number of Canadian cities as well and work with road safety groups and other organizations, it said.

“Road safety is all of our responsibility,” said Aviva’s vice-president of corporate responsibility and marketing Catherine Brown in an interview.

“The safe flags program is one of a multitude of initiatives that we’re going to be launching over the coming months that take a look at all of the road users and look at different scenarios to make the roads safer.”

She added that Aviva has partnered with Parachute, a charity aimed at preventing serious and fatal injuries, to make 20 identified school zones safer.

Flags were inspired Leaside initiative

Aviva has also partnered with Highline BETA and plans to launch an accelerator program to provide funding and development opportunities for startups focused on road safety. Other collaborators listed on the campaign’s website include the Ontario Traffic Council, the Canada Safety Council and the City of Markham.

The Canadian subsidiary of U.K.-based Aviva has earmarked $5 million over five years for the initiative, said Brown.

She said the flags were inspired by a similar initiative started by a group of boys in the Leaside neighbourhood of Toronto a few years ago, after a young girl had been struck and killed.

Flags at one of the intersections are tech enabled, and the insurer can measure how often they are used, she added.

People also had the option to visit a designated website using their mobile phones, which would in turn flash black and yellow on their screen. Pedestrians were to hold up their phones in this mode as they cross the street, the usage of which the insurer can also track, Brown said.

However, the City of Toronto called on Aviva to take the physical flags down.

“While the City is supportive of community organization endeavours to make its streets safer for children and pedestrians, the City does not have an agreement with any brand or organization to place flags at pedestrian crosswalk intersections,” said Toronto spokesman Brad Ross in an email.

No evidence flags an effective measure

He added that there is no evidence that points to improved compliance at crosswalks because of pedestrian flags.

“The Seattle Department of Transportation stopped installing pedestrian flags because of their limited effectiveness and the ongoing maintenance associated with them,” Ross said.

Kyle Ashley, a safe streets advocate, said the flag initiative prompted him to cancel his home and auto insurance policies with Aviva.

“My main concern is that we have a corporate social responsibility program that is taking responsibility away from those who are actually at blame … 99.9 per cent of the time, it’s not the fault of the pedestrian or the cyclist,” he said.

The only way to make the streets safer is to redesign them, Ashley said.

“If they just gave the city a couple of hundred thousand dollars to fix our worst intersection, not only would they see a better return on their investment… We would actually see something that is changing behaviours on our road for the better,” he said.

Aviva said the campaign is aimed at tackling dangerous roads and school zones through community projects and innovation to implement real environmental changes to reduce the number of people killed or injured on the roads.

“Where other road safety initiatives seek to influence the behaviour of road users, Aviva Take Back Our Roads is designed to affect the physical environment they interact with,” said Jason Storah, Aviva’s chief executive in a statement.

“We’ll be leveraging our knowledge, data, partnerships and funding to invest directly in initiatives that make meaningful
change in this space.”

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