City ignored pleas to install eye-level warning lights

Decade of deadly delay


A Free Press investigation into the city's transportation division

FOR the past 11 years, independent researcher and traffic safety activist Christian Sweryda has been urging the City of Winnipeg to install eye-level safety lights at pedestrian corridors.

It has been a long, drawn-out battle, featuring a forgotten report, a pilot project bordering on the absurd, a spate of major crashes and dead children.

Despite the deaths and near-tragedies, the city has resisted the mass rollout of a cheap and proven safety initiative. To this day, the vast majority of pedestrian corridors inWinnipeg do not have eye-level safety lights. 

The financial cost of delays is minuscule, but the human cost has been immeasurable.

On April 4, 2011, a 22-year-old woman was killed at the pedestrian corridor near HendersonHighway and Leighton Avenue as the overhead lights flashed.

At that time, Sweryda— who currently works for the Winnipeg School Division and is a second-year law student— had been studying traffic-related issues inWinnipeg for more than two years. His work had become an obsession, and he’d been mulling over the woman’s death for a month. 

One day he was stopped in his car at a rail crossing on Lagimodiere Boulevard when a figurative light bulb went off in his head. The solution was staring him right in the face: eye-level safety lights. 

At the pedestrian corridor on Henderson Highway where the woman was killed, the only lights were overhead, which were flashing when the driver entered the crosswalk. 

Sweryda concluded drivers whose vehicles were closer to the intersection when the lights began flashing would have a more difficult time seeing them. If lights were also installed at eye level, it would increase visibility. 

It seemed like common sense — Sweryda contacted the transportation division of the public works department and advocated for the installation of eye-level lights at pedestrian corridors. His efforts were rebuffed. 

In 2012 he contacted former city councillor Harvey Smith — the first municipal politician receptive to Sweryda’s research. Smith got department staff to sit down and hear Sweryda out on this and other traffic-safety issues, but they made no commitments to install the lights. 

By March 5, 2013, the same idea occurred to traffic-signals engineer Michael Cantor. In an inter-department email obtained by the Free Press, Cantor said the city should consider conducting a pilot project on eye-level safety lights at pedestrian corridors. 

“We can increase safety… with a cheap and effective solution,” Cantor wrote. 

Email correspondence shows there was initial pushback within the department, but the pilot project was eventually approved. 

Google Street View images show lights were installed at the pedestrian corridor at Notre Dame Avenue and McGee Street sometime between March 2013 and May 2014. 

The lights remained inactive and hooded until September 2016, when they were activated for a single eight hour period. That was the extent of the pilot project. 

While the sample size was small, the engineering report said the project had been a success, with driver “yield compliance” improving, and it recommended further study. The city did no further study at the time. 

Instead of rolling out eye-level safety lights at pedestrian corridors across the city, work crews went in and removed the pilot project lights at Notre Dame and McGee about a year later. 

A freedom-of-information request seeking an explanation for the decision to uninstall the lights turned up no records and an admission the department had co-ordinated the work through “word of mouth.” 

Then came the deaths. On Feb. 13, 2018, at the pedestrian corridor on St. Anne’s Road at Varennes Avenue, eight-year-old Surafiel Musse Tesfamariam was killed while on his way to school. The driver remained at the scene. The overhead lights were flashing. 

Eleven days later, a 16-year-old boy was hit at the crosswalk on Roblin Boulevard at Hunterspoint Road while chasing after his school bus. He was taken to hospital in unstable condition. On Aug. 30, 2018, a woman was left in critical condition and a man in unstable condition after being hit at a newly built pedestrian corridor on Keewatin Street at Santa Fe Drive. The 65-year-old driver remained at the scene. 

On March 18, 2019, four-year-old Galila Habtegerish was killed at the pedestrian corridor on Isabel Street at Ross Avenue. Her mother was also hit and taken to hospital in critical condition. 

The driver remained at the scene. She was charged with six offences, including two counts of disobeying a traffic-control device. The overhead lights were flashing. 

On July 31, 2019, a 23-year-old woman was killed at the crosswalk on Sargent Avenue at Simcoe Street. An 89-year-old man was charged with driving carelessly causing death and disobeying a traffic-control device. The overhead lights were flashing. 

On Sept. 10, 2019, a 37-year-old woman was killed while crossing the pedestrian corridor on William Avenue near Health Sciences Centre. The 57-year-old driver remained at the scene and was charged with dangerous driving causing death and disobeying a traffic-control device. The overhead lights were flashing. 

Nineteen months, six crashes, four deaths, two of them children. 

Sweryda remembers the moment he heard the boy had been killed on St. Anne’s Road. A friend broke the news to him. 

“I cried,” Sweryda said. “It was extremely frustrating, depressing. Whenever another person died I would just get so mad. Basically, screaming-at-the-wall mad. Of all the social problems in the world, we’re fighting over this? No wonder we can’t get anywhere.” 

Charlene Sacher has lived in that area with her husband and three children for 13 years. Her 11-year-old daughter was friends with Surafiel, the boy killed in the corridor.

In the years before the boy’s death, Sacher said neighbourhood residents repeatedly took safety concerns about the corridor to the city. At first they requested a speed-limit reduction, but the city said that was not possible.

“Then we asked for the trees to be trimmed back, because coming up to that crosswalk, sometimes it is very difficult to see the lights. We asked for better signage. There were lots of comments about looking into it,” Sacher said.

“It took what everyone thought would be a worst-case scenario to actually make changes happen.”

After the death on St. Anne’s Road, the transportation division of the public works department did a safety review of the corridor, concluding that eye-level safety lights were needed. An engineering report pegged the installation cost at $500, later upgraded to $5,000 per corridor, or just under $1 million for the 184 corridors throughout the city.

After the four-year-old girl died on Isabel Street in 2019 (shortly after the lights were installed on St. Anne’s Road), the city did a safety review of that corridor. As was the case with the St. Anne’s Road review before it, the report recommended installing eye-level safety lights at the location.

There was no mention of Sweryda’s advocacy dating back to 2011, or to the city’s 2016 pilot project, or to the St. Anne’s Road review.

In 2019, by which time eye-level lights had been installed at nine corridors, the city hired a consulting firm to further investigate the issue, which looked at driver yield compliance rates at three pedestrian corridors in Winnipeg that had been equipped with the lights on St. Anne’s Road, Corydon Avenue and Maryland Street.

The contract was awarded to a consulting firm owned by the wife of a long-standing manager within the transportation division of the public works department — although he was no longer employed by the city at the time.

In a written statement, a City of Winnipeg spokesman summarized a key finding of the report as “the addition of the low-mounted beacons to the pedestrian corridor treatment system… did not result in a statistically significant change in driver yield compliance.”

But the report concluded that yield compliance rates on St. Anne’s Road and Corydon Avenue had indeed increased, from 90 per cent to 93, and from 86 per cent to 89, respectively.

Meanwhile, driver yield compliance rates fell at Maryland Street, from 88 per cent to 85; the report does not speculate as to a possible explanation.

Nevertheless, the report noted benefits to the installation of eye-level lights beyond the increase in driver yield compliance at two locations.

“As a vehicle moves closer and closer to a pedestrian corridor, it becomes impossible for the driver to see the overhead flashers because they pass out of a driver’s (line of sight),” the report reads.

“As such, the Public Service concluded that (eye-level safety lights) do provide conspicuity to pedestrian corridors for drivers that are within the stopping sight distance (ie: are close to the corridor when the lights are actuated), and in dense urban settings for vehicles turning right onto a corridor.”

In other words, as drivers get closer to the pedestrian corridor, they are less likely to see the overhead flashing safety lights, so installing eye-level lights improves visibility.

Eight years after Sweryda first brought the matter to the attention of the department, the city had conducted two different studies — in one case hiring an outside consulting firm — to arrive at the same conclusion he had.

The city spokesman said that moving forward, the department will install eye-level safety lights at all pedestrian corridors impacted by capital projects.

“There is no identified funding source to support a network-wide upgrade for pedestrian crossings,” the spokesman said.

The Free Press explained the series of events to Brent Toderian, an internationally recognized thought leader on cities and city-building with more than 30 years of experience in advanced urbanism, city planning and urban design.

As he has not reviewed the reports, he did not want to comment specifically about the effectiveness of the lights. But he was willing to make some general comments.

“One thing I’ve seen in city after city, whether or not you have the money depends entirely on your priorities.… Too many cities are still keeping old standards because of momentum and a disinterest in changing the status quo,” he said.

But the saga, according to Toderian, points to deeper, structural problems in Winnipeg, and it’s ultimately a debate over “doing the wrong thing better.”

“Never forget that’s what you’re doing. You’re trying to retrofit failure. And the failure is you didn’t design for pedestrian safety in the first place,” he said.

Sacher has already seen tragedy up close and worries about more deaths.

“So many of these crosswalks are near schools…. There is a potential for a tragedy to happen at all of these. Being proactive now could save the life of someone’s child,” Sacher said.

In 2020, Coun. Matt Allard (St. Boniface), the chair of the public works committee, moved a motion asking the department to develop plans for a city-wide rollout of eye-level safety lights at pedestrian corridors — nine years after Sweryda’s advocacy began.

To date, the public works department says it has installed eye-level safety lights at 25 pedestrian corridors in Winnipeg, with 159 locations to go.

According to Sweryda, the city’s numbers are wrong: it’s actually 28 of 184, roughly 15 per cent.

A department memo reviewed by the Free Press said plans are in the works for 15 more.

They say they’ll get around to them later this year. Twitter: @rk_thorpe