Record fatalities blamed on pandemic rage Police chief says COVID effects contribute to record death toll on city streets

It got a lot more dangerous to use Winnipeg’s streets last year, and the city’s police chief believes the record number of traffic deaths can be explained, at least in part, by pandemic-fuelled angst behind the wheel.

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It got a lot more dangerous to use Winnipeg’s streets last year, and the city’s police chief believes the record number of traffic deaths can be explained, at least in part, by pandemic-fuelled angst behind the wheel.

In an update submitted recently to the Winnipeg Police Board, Winnipeg Police Chief Danny Smyth noted officers investigated 28 traffic fatalities, including 12 pedestrian deaths, in 2022.

The number in Winnipeg more than triples fatalities from 2021, and nearly doubles the five-year average since 2018.

Smyth pointed to the myriad effects COVID-19 has had on residents as a contributing factor.

“I don’t want to lay it all on the pandemic, but there is a lot of anxiety, there is a lot of anger out in the community and I think it manifests itself through… things like traffic,” Smyth said.

“I can’t think of anything else that would have such a big swing on the numbers we are seeing… We are seeing a change in people’s behaviour.”

Many traffic-safety experts agree.

Winnipeg transportation planner Jairo Viafara is one of them, citing data from cities across North America, where there have been similar increases in fatal collisions in recent years.

“(The pandemic) should not be a reason that provides justification for the lack of engineering in some of our roadway designs.”–Jairo Viafara

At the same time, however, he argues the city could be more proactive in its approach to traffic safety.

“(The pandemic) should not be a reason that provides justification for the lack of engineering in some of our roadway designs.”

Police investigated 41 “serious” collisions, with 19 pedestrians struck and eight hit-and-runs in 2022. Five incidents involved, or were suspected of involving, impaired drivers, Smyth’s report said.

In addition to the cost of the lives lost, each fatal collision presents a drain on police — and city — resources, Smyth’s report noted. Every investigation requires support from first responders, and forensic and traffic collision specialists, making the expense comparable to a homicide investigation.

The estimated hit to the police budget totals $6 million, he said.

Across the province, there were 90 traffic fatalities in 2022, up from the five-year average of 78 annual deaths, Manitoba Public Insurance spokesperson Kristy Rydz said in an email statement.

<p>SUPPLIED</p>
<p>Jairo Viafara is a professional transportation planner.</p>

SUPPLIED

Jairo Viafara is a professional transportation planner.

Last June, Viafara presented a report to city council alerting them to an increase in pedestrian traffic fatalities dating back nearly a decade.

He analyzed data from the city and MPI collected between 2012 and 2019, finding the rate of pedestrian deaths rose from four deaths annually to 5.6 beginning in 2019.

Viafara, who estimates it would have cost the city about $120,000 to produce a similar report — which Coun. Matt Allard said contained more complete information that the city had from its own departments at the time — provided the information free of charge.

He and Allard (St. Boniface) advanced several recommendations, including asking the city to evaluate and update pedestrian crossings.

They asked council to update the frequency of its then-annual requests for collision reports from the Winnipeg Police Service and MPI.

WPS has since switched to a quarterly format.

<p>DANIEL CRUMP / FREE PRESS FILES</p>
<p>A pedestrian died Dec. 3 after a two-vehicle collision on Route 90, near Academy Road.</p>

DANIEL CRUMP / FREE PRESS FILES

A pedestrian died Dec. 3 after a two-vehicle collision on Route 90, near Academy Road.

Rydz said MPI continues to provide full data sets annually, but meets regularly with city officials to discuss road safety and share information as issues arise.

“MPI has identified the need for more timely data, and is working towards providing collision data on a quarterly basis,” she said.

Since Viafara’s report, traffic conditions have worsened.

Allard is frustrated by a lack of action on council, which he said has not provided funding to address $7 million in road-safety deficiencies identified by the public service in the Traffic Engineering Improvements program.

“Those are identified, warranted projects by our own city administration that are still not funded. I unfortunately expect these problems to get worse with time, and we have the tools to fix them,” he told the Free Press Thursday.

Nine lives lost

Last year’s pedestrian deaths culminated with a series of collisions that claimed nine lives between October and December.

On Oct. 9, Jim Aitkenhead, 78, died in hospital after he was hit by a vehicle while crossing Osborne Street. The driver, a woman in her 80s, remained at the scene and spoke with police.

On Oct. 16, Shannon Joan Marie Romaniuk, 24, was killed near the intersection of Portage Avenue and Berry Street. The driver fled in a silver or grey late-model SUV.

Just 18 hours prior, 81-year-old Corazon Manguerra was critically injured when the vehicle she was in was struck in a hit-and-run near Sargent Avenue and Empress Street. She died in hospital.

Last year’s pedestrian deaths culminated with a series of collisions that claimed nine lives between October and December.

On Oct. 9, Jim Aitkenhead, 78, died in hospital after he was hit by a vehicle while crossing Osborne Street. The driver, a woman in her 80s, remained at the scene and spoke with police.

On Oct. 16, Shannon Joan Marie Romaniuk, 24, was killed near the intersection of Portage Avenue and Berry Street. The driver fled in a silver or grey late-model SUV.

Just 18 hours prior, 81-year-old Corazon Manguerra was critically injured when the vehicle she was in was struck in a hit-and-run near Sargent Avenue and Empress Street. She died in hospital.

On Oct. 18, David Bunguke, 17, was killed after the vehicle he was a passenger in struck a hydro pole on St. Mary’s Road. The driver, an 18-year-old male, was also seriously injured.

On Oct. 24, a 56-year-old man was killed in a hit-and-run after he was struck by a vehicle at Notre Dame Avenue and Keewatin Street by an SUV. Police found the suspect vehicle abandoned in Charleswood.

On Nov. 6, a man in his 50s died after being hit by a vehicle on Dumoulin Street in St. Boniface. The driver, a man in his 20s, remained at the scene.

Another pedestrian died Dec. 3 after a two-vehicle collision on Route 90, near Academy Road.

Sarbjit Gill, 42, died Dec. 10 in a two-vehicle collision near the intersection of Inkster Boulevard and King Edward Street. She was the final traffic fatality that year.

“I’m not surprised that fatalities and injuries are on the rise…. It’s heartbreaking, because we are talking about people and families… people are losing their lives for reasons that are entirely preventable in many cases.”

The proposed 2023 budget allocates about $1.3 million in new funding toward the renamed Road Safety Improvement program.

According to the budget, the city expects to spend approximately $12.5 million on road safety over the next six years.

Allard said there are millions of unspent dollars already dedicated to the program. He asked his colleagues in the public works committee to explain why in a motion to council earlier this month.

“It was not dealt with,” he said. “I still don’t have the answer because it’s been laid over another month. It’s frustrating…. We have the money, we have identified projects.”

One of the requests resulting from Viafara’s report is the implementation of low-mounted lights at pedestrian crossings, something the traffic expert said is proven to reduce collisions.

Last year, Allard asked council to fund the upgrades. The request was shot down in a unanimous vote.

“That’s a clear example of council voting no to road safety,” he said.

The city is exploring traffic-calming measures to improve safety in some Winnipeg neighbourhoods — including introducing a pilot program to reduce speeds on 14 residential streets — but the reductions are unlikely to make a direct impact on traffic fatalities, Smyth said.

“Those aren’t the areas where we are seeing the collisions, however, those are areas where people are living… a lot of families want people to slow down.”

As far as measures that could improve safety, Smyth reaffirmed his confidence in photo-radar cameras, saying they are more cost-effective than traditional traffic enforcement.

“I still think automated enforcement is one of the best ways to do speed enforcement… When people get stung with some of the fines, that changes behaviour, for sure. And it does free up resources.”

Winnipeg has 49 intersection safety cameras and 10 separate mobile photo-enforcement units that regularly monitor streets near schools, playgrounds and construction zones.

Allard expects council will answer his motion to explain the unspent road safety dollars next month.

—With files from Joyanne Pursaga

tyler.searle@freepress.mb.ca

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