Manitoba·CBC Investigates

'It's disturbing': Crosswalk safety report hidden from Winnipeg city council

It took a child's death at a crosswalk in 2018 for the city to install lower-level flashing lights beside a pedestrian crosswalk — even though a Winnipeg experiment in 2016 suggested such lights made crosswalks much safer.

2016 report found driver compliance increases with side-mounted lights — but none were installed until 2018

Rezene Barakiel remembers his daughter Galila, who was struck and killed by a vehicle while walking with her mother at a crosswalk in Winnipeg, Manitoba in early 2019. (Trevor Brine/CBC)

It took a child's death at a crosswalk in 2018 for the city to install lower-level flashing lights beside a pedestrian crosswalk — even though a Winnipeg experiment in 2016 suggested such lights made crosswalks much safer.

Surafiel Musse Tesfamariam, 8, and Galila Habtegergish, 4, have both died at crosswalks since that 2016 study, and in both cases, the immediate response by the city was to install these additional amber lights at the crosswalks; an additional seven were installed last year, for a total of nine in the city.

Galila died after she was hit by a car while crossing the pedestrian crosswalk at Isabel Street and Alexander Avenue in March 2019. 

"I don't want to speak a lot of her. I don't want to remember most of it," said her father, Rezene Barakiel. 

"When I remember, most of the time I am laughing and I am joking, but inside I was crying … [when] I see her picture … she [was] my only daughter."

WATCH | Crosswalk lights from a driver's perspective:

CBC looks at two different pedestrian crosswalks from a drivers perspective. 1:16

Surafiel died after he was hit by a truck at the crosswalk at St. Anne's Road near Varennes Avenue in February 2018.

In both cases, city councillors fought for increased safety measures to the crosswalks and won. What they didn't know was that city officials had been sitting on a report that had called for more of these side-mounted lights since 2016.

Study never publicly released

The report, obtained by CBC, details a pilot project in 2016 that found driver compliance rates increased 100 per cent at certain distances at pedestrian crossings with both overhead flashing lights and side-mounted beacons.

The study was never publicly released and it took until 2019 for the city to revisit the idea and conduct further studies.

"It's disturbing," said Coun. Vivian Santos, a rookie councillor who championed bringing the extra lights to Isabel Street after Galila's death 

"To know that back in 2016, we had a report like that … that's definitely three years of delay. Why we could not have invested back then, I don't have a good answer for you."

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When the report was written, Winnipeg had more than 170 pedestrian crosswalks with overhead flashing lights and none with both overhead and side lights.

When asked why the 2016 study, which recommended expanding the experiment, was not released, a spokesperson for the city described it as inconclusive because it only studied one location.

Daughter died, mother injured

Galila and her mother Genet were hit by a car on March 18, 2019. The pair had activated the crosswalk with overhead flashing lights and had the right of way, police said.

The crash sent Galila and her mother to the hospital — the four-year-old died the next day, while her mother spent the next four months in hospital recovering from her injuries.

"It was a shock," said Barakiel, who still lives across from the intersection where she died.

The family moved to Winnipeg from Eritrea the month before. The mother and daughter were crossing the busy intersection at lunch to meet Galila's six-year-old brother at Dufferin School. 

WATCH | Galila's father speaks for the first time:

Rezene Barakiel talks about how tough it is to remember his daughter, four-year-old Galila Habtegergish. 0:41

Barakiel is speaking to media for the the first time because he doesn't want another child to die at an intersection.

While he is grateful for the support he received from the Eritrean community and that his wife survived, he has trouble even talking about his daughter.

"I don't cross [the intersection] even. I don't want to see [it]," Barakiel said.

A 31-year-old woman was charged this December with careless driving causing death and careless driving causing bodily harm under the Highway Traffic Act.

A city of Winnipeg report filed in June 2019, three months after the fatal collision, recommended adding the same sort of lower-level flashing amber lights that were examined in the 2016 report. The crosswalk two blocks away from the crash was converted to a full light. 

It cost $5,000 to install the side lights at the existing crosswalk. 

"We should never have to do knee-jerk reactions — never. We should just do what is best practice, and we know this is the best practice, and we should go ahead and invest in these best practices and install them," said Santos.

A request to interview Jim Berezowsky, the city's director of public works, was declined.

2016 project 'inconclusive': city

For the 2016 study, the city installed side-mounted lights at the Notre Dame Avenue and Pearl Street pedestrian-activated crosswalk to complement the two overhead mounted flashing lights that already existed.

It recorded whenever a pedestrian activated the flashing lights and the distance from the crosswalk to each approaching vehicle. 

The study found that driver compliance increased to 100 per cent when it was sixty metres away from the crosswalk when the lower level lights were used with the overhead lights. 

"This preliminary study suggests the addition of side-mounted RFBs [rapid flashing beacons] to pedestrian corridors improves pedestrian safety by increasing the yield compliance rate of approaching drivers," stated the report dated August 2016.

You can't fix it on one-off cases where a child happens to die​​​​​- Christian Sweryda, road safety advocate

"I recommend a longer analysis at different locations to see if these results are representative across Winnipeg with varying speeds, traffic, volumes, lane geometry and environment," the report said.

No further analysis was taken by the city until last year and the side-mounted lights were removed from the intersection at Notre Dame after the pilot.

Lower-level lights added after child dies

It took over two years from the date of the study before first permanent lower-level lights at a pedestrian corridor were installed in Winnipeg.

That was spurred by eight-year-old Surafiel's death in 2018.

A further eight sets of the lower-level lights were installed in 2019 as the city started the first phase of a "second, more comprehensive" study on the effectiveness of side-mounted lights, a city spokesperson said.

The results of phase one are expected to be released this spring.

"Preliminary data does indicate a benefit," a city spokesperson wrote.

Nothing more to study: advocate

The issue surrounding these lights and the 2016 report were first brought to the attention of CBC by Christian Sweryda, a road safety advocate and law student who has been fixated on the issue for years. He obtained the report through a freedom of information request.

Point Douglas councillor Vivian Santos says she was shocked to learn that there was a 2016 report that look at amber flashing side-mounted lights. (Gary Solilak/CBC )

He says the city is past the point that it needs to further study the issue. 

"I have been fighting for this for seven to eight years now, and the question I keep asking is: Why are we still talking about this? How is this a debate? This is common sense. Anyone can see that these are a huge improvement," he said.

"You can't fix it on one-off cases where a child happens to die." 

3rd pedestrian dies

A third pedestrian, Jillian Lammatao, 24, died after being hit at pedestrian corridor with an overhead flashing light at Sargent Avenue and Simcoe Street last August.

The crash was captured on security cameras and showed Lammatao pressing the button, waiting a moment and then crossing before she was struck by a car.

Winnipeg police say they are waiting for a Crown opinion to see if charges will be laid.

Tarek Sayed, a civil engineering professor who heads the transportation research group at the University of British Columbia, says each pedestrian corridor has unique needs. Ultimately, visibility is one of the key components, and lights play an important role.  

Photo of Jillian Lammatao at the vigil held for the 24-year-old, who died of her injuries in August of 2019 after being hit at a crosswalk at the intersection of Sargent Avenue and Simcoe Street. (Erin Brohman/CBC)

"You need to make sure that vehicles are aware of a pedestrian crossing," Sayed said. "Usually [with more lights] vehicles will be aware of a crosswalk much faster and they can stop in time."

But lowering the speed limit can be be even more effective, he said.

Rapid flashing beacon

The second phases of the city's study will look at the effectiveness of a different sort of side-mounted light called a rapid flashing beacon to compare it to low-level flashers. 

The city has earmarked $2.5 million in federal gas tax funding for investments in roadside safety measures. 

Infrastructure renewal and public works chair Coun. Matt Allard says he plans to introduce a motion next month to see how the city can speed up installing more of these lights.

"And I think we're going to want to dovetail that conversation into the study," Allard said.

"How do we spend that $2.5 million to increase safety on our streets?"

WATCH | Caroline Barghout's report:

It took a child's death at a crosswalk in 2018 for the city to install lower-level flashing lights beside a pedestrian crosswalk — even though a Winnipeg experiment in 2016 suggested such lights made crosswalks much safer. 3:09

 

 

About the Author

Kristin Annable is a member of CBC's investigative unit based in Winnipeg. She can be reached at kristin.annable@cbc.ca