In Steve MacKay’s neighbourhood, car crashes are so common that he and his neighbours have a routine every time an accident happens. They check to see if anyone is injured and confirm someone has called 911. They bring out deck chairs and glasses of water for the drivers and passengers. “Within a minute, there'll be a dozen people out on their steps, making sure things are being taken care of,” he says.
By day, MacKay analyzes data for the Nova Scotia Health Authority, but Twitter users may know him as his online alter ego, Raccoon at home. The character was born when he bought a raccoon mask to entertain his son and embarrass his wife. He’s posed as a raccoon at a Tim Hortons drive through and the library, but the shtick is mostly reserved for his online presence. He wears the mask in his profile picture for anonymity, and to keep things lighthearted. “Who's seriously gonna argue with the raccoon? Like I'm not gonna get into any flame wars,” he says.
But it’s hard to keep your account lighthearted when you’re known for documenting car crashes. MacKay lives in the north end by the intersection of Robie and Stanley Streets, the site of three vehicle crashes in the past five weeks, the most recent taking place last Friday. MacKay’s Twitter is home to a long thread of accidents in the area, counting more than 20 crashes since 2018, including a collision in June 2021 on Robie and Stairs that killed an 80-year-old woman. And minutes after MacKay spoke with The Coast on Monday, a car and a motorcycle collided at Stairs Street and Massachusetts Avenue.
The plague of car crashes has taken a toll on the neighbourhood. MacKay is afraid to walk on Robie with his family. His neighbour Pat’s house has been hit by cars on three separate occasions. “A few crashes ago, at this street, I was waiting for my wife and child to come home, and I heard the crash,” MacKay says, “and I thought ‘oh god it’s them.’” It wasn’t, but his wife’s car has been hit once while pulling out of the driveway. Her car was written off.
The crashes on this stretch of Robie, where it intersects with Stairs, Stanley and Columbus Streets, are extreme. “This is cars being written off, this is a person dying on the street, this is houses being crashed into,” MacKay says. “If it was fender benders, oh my god, I would love it.”
Most of the collisions are due to people blowing through stop signs at high speeds, a problem that Mackay says could be solved “overnight.” At the Robie intersections between Livingstone and Wells, there are no painted crosswalks or stop bars. The only thing telling drivers to slow down is a two-way stop marked by signs alone, and it isn’t working.
Fed up, MacKay took matters into his own hands in November 2021, “about five crashes” after the fatal one. He rallied his neighbours, and they hauled five green bins into the middle of the Robie and Stanley intersection. They stood and watched for about an hour as cars actually slowed down and paid attention. But the real miracle of the green bin protest was that it brought the community together, and they found out they had all been contacting their city councillor, Lindell Smith. MacKay has been reaching out for years.
After the green-bin protest, Smith sent an email to residents. ”I spent some time with staff on site in the area of Robie St. (between Livingstone and Lady Hammond) in late September to discuss potential solutions,” he wrote. “This meeting comes after making various requests on behalf of residents and from concerns I raised as well.” Smith said multiple studies have been done in the area, and it will be ranked under the city’s new traffic-calming policy, which will inform the 2023 budget. Additionally, a “larger review of collisions in the area” will take place to “determine if any future redesigns are warranted.”
A couple crashes later, MacKay turned up the heat. He organized a petition to the transportation standing committee in January 2022, which collected over 400 signatures. He asked for four-way stops at “one or two” of the three intersections (Stairs, Stanley, and Columbus) and stop bars painted on the roads. MacKay wrote he wanted it done in two months. Traffic authority said they’d paint the stop bars, but not until painting season, and that they’d consider the four-way stops, but only after more studies.
Then there were four more crashes. After a collision just outside MacKay’s house last Friday, May 13, he emailed Smith and chair of the Transportation Standing Committee Waye Mason, saying he wanted dates and action. Later, he donned his raccoon mask, looking like an unlikely street safety superhero, to pose for a photo for Twitter holding a large white stencil. He was about to execute his second guerilla infrastructure protest. Under the cover of night and armed with a $10 can of primer, MacKay painted a crosswalk on the Robie and Stanley, what he says was “an invitation for public works to come to our intersection.”
They took the bait. On Tuesday, a city worker powerwashed the DIY crosswalk off the street– exactly what MacKay expected. “It gave confirmation that the city knew it existed,” he says. “The point of the crosswalk was to draw attention.”
Confirmation that public works is aware of our intersection. pic.twitter.com/cxogwLxSCD— Raccoon at home (@Seebo429) May 17, 2022
After the crosswalk, the petition, the green bins, publicly documenting the crashes and years of chasing councillors, this week MacKay finally got what he asked for. Smith tweeted on Tuesday that the city will install four-way stops, crosswalks and stop bars at the Stairs/Robie and Stairs/Columbus intersections, and paint stop bars to support the existing two-way stop signs on Stanley, Merkel, Cabot, Sebastian and Wells.
When he found out the city finally committed to action, MacKay immediately went to his neighbour Pat’s house to tell her. “She was so happy to get that news, I thought she was going to hug me,” he says. The next thing he did was buy lottery tickets, which he never does. If MacKay wins the lottery, he says he’s going to buy up the whole street and turn it into a dirt road. “Try speeding now,” he jokes.
While he says the news was “amazing,” MacKay is frustrated it took so long for the city to do something. “They could have done this years ago, there didn’t have to be all these 25 or so crashes.”. It took four days for the city to remove his crosswalk, and four years to decide to add one. And it’s not lost on him that the proposed solution to people running stop signs might not be putting up more stop signs-although hopefully it’s better than nothing. “This isn't some kind of magic silver bullet, but it's something that can be done overnight, and that's why I pushed for this.”
In an email to The Coast, councillor Smith says staff “are hoping” work on the new stop signs and street markings will be completed by mid-summer. “Smith says he’s been working on this since 2018, and I believe he has been, but I don’t think he’s been treating it with the urgency that it required,” MacKay says. In the meantime, Twitter users and Robie street residents alike are thanking the vigilante raccoon who slowed down traffic.