Call to retire “shared responsibility” education campaign

The following is a letter sent by Bike Ottawa and School Streets Ottawa regarding the road safety education campaign recently released by the City of Ottawa. Our concern is the approach to road safety that messaging of this type represents. We call on the City to redirect resources toward proven methods of making our streets safer for all road users.

The response from the city is posted below.

Date: 14 September 2023

Subject: Call to Retire “Shared Responsibility” Education Campaign

Mr. Gonthier and Ms. Stephanson,

Bike Ottawa and School Streets Ottawa are organizations with a membership base that advocates for residents using active means of transportation – an important ingredient for Ottawa to become a livable city during this declared climate emergency – through implementing goals as laid out in the 5 Big Policy Moves of our Official Plan and Transportation Master Plan.

The City of Ottawa released a Road Safety Action Plan (RSAP) social media ad on September 9th, 2023, depicting a person on the ground with text claiming the person’s actions of trying to save time by “jaywalking” resulted in their own death. We are gravely concerned about how this campaign depicts Ottawa’s approach and understanding of “road safety for all users.”

At this point, you have heard from the public and councillors on the many problems and tenuous basis in evidence of this RSAP campaign’s messaging; the auto industry-coined term “jaywalking” is not mentioned in the Highway Traffic Act, and mid-block crossings account for less than 30% of pedestrian deaths. As the trial’s intent was for city staff to learn from the public’s response, they must take away this: Ottawa chooses to frame road deaths and injuries as personal choices instead of being victims of the City’s failure to implement a safe systems approach to achieve Vision Zero. City staff and municipal leaders who created and supported this campaign appear insular in understanding vulnerable road users’ experience. 

Moving forward, our organizations want the best outcome for all residents on our streets and hope for a real shift in how our city perceives residents outside of cars. We strongly recommend the following actions be taken:

  1. Retire the Road Safety Action Plan’s campaign around “Shared Responsibility” educational messaging and instead shift to a rigorous “Safe Systems Approach.” Education campaigns have little to no measurable effect in improving road safety.1
  2. Any future messaging should focus on the “Hierarchy of Road Users”2 as enacted in the UK; those with the greatest power or who can inflict the most damage carry the greatest responsibility.
  3. Shift funding from education-focused activities and boost funding in this fall’s budget for concrete measures to achieve real Vision Zero goals, such as overhauling the City’s 29 most dangerous intersections, implementing a city-wide quick-build fund for immediate cycling network and crosswalk expansion, intersection safety improvements, and look at examples from Oslo, Norway who were able to accomplish their Vision Zero goals in 2019 after four years of dedicated implementation of measures.3
  4. Finally, an explanation and an apology from the City to residents to restore credibility to their commitment to achieve Vision Zero through the RSAP.

In summary, the city must immediately abandon this education campaign, which lacks basis in evidence; the tone-deaf message of victim blaming brings senior city staff’s judgement into repute for which it owes an apology; and the city must focus RSAP resources to deliver measurable and meaningful outcomes to achieve Vision Zero. Bike Ottawa, School Streets Ottawa will work tirelessly to amplify voices calling for safer streets for all users in Ottawa.


Shawn Gettler on behalf of the Board of Directors, Bike Ottawa

Chris Hircock, Cassie Smith on behalf of the Principals of School Streets Ottawa

Cc: Theresa Kavanagh (Councillor and Deputy Mayor, Bay Ward) 

Marty Carr (Councillor, Alta Vista Ward)

Shawn Menard (Councillor, Capital Ward)

Sean Devine (Councillor, Knoxdale-Merivale Ward)

Riley Brockington (Councillor, River Ward)

Ariel Troster (Councillor, Somerset Ward)

John Wambombo (Program Coordinator, Safer Roads Ottawa)

  1. Evidence Brief: Effectiveness of Education, Training Programs and Awareness Campaigns on Road Safety ↩︎
  2.  The UK Highway Code: Hierarchy of Road Users ↩︎
  3. Oslo Norway Completly Eliminated Bicycle and Pedestrian Fatalities: Here’s How ↩︎

Response received 22 September:

Good morning,

Thank you for reaching out to express your concerns on this road safety ad campaign, as part of the Road Safety Action Plan. We value the role of Bike Ottawa in promoting a safer environment for all vulnerable road users.

Before elaborating further on the campaign, I want to confirm that the test ads that referenced jaywalking were pulled from the testing period on September 10th. Those test ads were one of several ads that were being tested, the majority focused on driver behaviors.

The 2020-2024 Road Safety Action Plan (RSAP) was approved by Council in December 2019. It built upon the previous plan implemented from 2012 to 2016, which resulted in a 14 percent reduction in fatal and major injuries in Ottawa, and incorporated input from residents, community stakeholders, and road safety advocates and experts.

The current plan is informed by data on fatal and major injury collisions, has measurable outcomes, and aligns with the principles of a safe systems approach in which:

  • human life and health are prioritized;
  • safety is a shared responsibility between roadway providers, regulators and users;
  • there is recognition that a human error on the roadway should not lead to death or serious injury, and that road traffic systems must be designed accordingly; and,
  • road safety requires a change in culture, in which roadway providers, regulators and road users must cooperate and be ready to change to achieve the long-term vision and goals of the RSAP.

Since then, an annual update is provided to City Council, and an implementation plan for the year is approved by City Council. These plans identify key emphasis areas (vulnerable road users, high risk driving behaviour, rural roads, and intersections) on which to focus engineering, enforcement, and education initiatives towards improved road safety for all.

On the issue of “shared responsibility”, the use of this term is not to perpetuate divisiveness between road users, but instead to bring together road users, roadway providers and regulators towards a common goal of behaviour change and improved road safety culture. The term “shared responsibility” was never intended to convey equal responsibility. We commit to ongoing acknowledgement of the way these terms are being received, and adjusting the messaging as needed.

It is important to highlight that the majority of funding in the RSAP budget is allocated to engineering measures. The identification of measures is data driven towards reaching our goal of reducing serious injuries and fatal collisions across the City. Funds are allocated to all emphasis areas. In terms of vulnerable road users and specifically cyclists, funding for modifications to enhance cycling safety at the high volume cycling and vehicle intersections is allocated through RSAP. In 2023, construction is underway at 3 locations:

  • Three intersections along O’Connor St to reduce vehicle speeds through the cycling lanes
  • Scott St & Bayview Ave protected intersection
  • King Edward Ave & St. Patrick St westbound segregated cycling facility

Further, design work is underway at three intersections:

  • Laurier Ave & Elgin St protected intersection, and westbound segregated cycling facilities on Laurier Ave from Queen Elizabeth Driveway to Elgin St
  • Donald St. & Vanier Parkway protected intersection
  • Smyth & Riverside Hospital cycling improvements

As a result of an increase in the number of Automated Speed Enforcement (ASE) cameras throughout the City in the coming years, the RSAP budget is expected to increase to levels that will allow more sites to be retrofitted year over year, to enhance the safety of cyclists at these previously identified intersections.

We know that investing in safe road design and enforcement are key to road safety, and most initiatives in the implementation plan are engineering and enforcement related. Education toward road users’ behaviour change is also an important element in shifting and accepting a safer road culture.

The RSAP contains 3 major elements of road safety culture change through education. The first is delivery of a road safety communications strategy, developed through a data-based approach, towards that behaviour change in all road users. The ad campaign currently under development is part of this strategy and is elaborated on further below.

The second is road safety training for all staff working for the City of Ottawa who make decisions about the roadway network. The third is development of road safety audit guidelines, and completion of audits as part of the planning and design phases of road construction projects, to identify potential risks and mitigation measures through design for various road users.

The Safer Roads Ottawa program also coordinates the implementation of many educational outreach to the public identified in the annual implementation plans, such as:

  • Be Safe Be Seen program providing lights and reflectors to vulnerable road users
  • Motorcycle Safety Courses
  • Motorized Recreational Vehicles outreach presentations
  • Booster Seat & Passenger Safety Awareness Program

The comms strategy and ad campaign are being developed to cover all 4 emphasis areas noted in the RSAP, and as a result, the majority of ads and messaging that will be released later in 2023 and through 2024 will speak to drivers’ behaviour. As mentioned, the ad campaign has not yet been fully developed or launched.

As noted earlier, the single test ad you’ve noted and shared widely the past couple weeks was part of a series of test ads that spoke to both driver behaviours needed to keep vulnerable road users safe, but also to behaviours of vulnerable road users that data indicates can be a contributing factor. We fully recognize many factors contribute to fatal and major injury collisions, and
the heightened level of risk to pedestrians and cyclists. We hope that raising the collective awareness will prevent one death or one person suffering a major life altering injury.

The 2020-2024 Plan’s goal calls for a 20 per cent reduction in the rate of fatal and major injury collisions by 2024. Council further approved a longer-term goal of zero fatalities on our streets by 2035, with a focus on safety for the most vulnerable road users — pedestrians, school children, older adults and cyclists. To achieve this ultimate goal, we must put all efforts towards speaking to each contributing factor noted in Ottawa’s fatal and major injury data.

These ads were chosen for testing as pedestrians and cyclists are the focus for the month of September, under the emphasis area of vulnerable road users. Data indicates that fatal and major injury collisions involving pedestrians and cyclists in Ottawa occur at a higher rate in September than most other months. Other education initiatives this month included a feature story
‘Lessons for outside the classroom’ as well as an event held yesterday to inform road users of the dangerous blind spots along the sides of heavy trucks. Later this fall, other emphasis areas will be covered as informed by the data.

We appreciate the level of interest and attention the public and the media have given to the development of this ad campaign and the issue of road safety culture; the amount of feedback we’ve received is invaluable. We look forward to sharing more about the campaign upon launch later this year.

It is our hope the campaign will continue to garner a heightened level of interest and discussion from members of the public sharing our common goal of reducing fatal and major injury collisions on Ottawa roads.

Thank you.


Alain C. Gonthier, P.Eng. / ing. (he, him, il)

General Manager / Directeur général

Public Works Department / Direction générale des travaux publics

City of Ottawa / ville d’Ottawa