For Rev. Xavier De Pinto, the new traffic signal being installed outside his Scarborough church is literally the answer to his congregation’s prayers.
The city agreed last year to install the lights, but only after traffic on Lawrence Avenue took a terrible toll on De Pinto’s community — leading him and a busload of parishioners to pack a community council meeting and call for change.
According to the clergyman, since 1984, five people have been killed while crossing in front of Precious Blood Roman Catholic Church, which is on the south side of Lawrence, just east of Victoria Park Avenue.
“It was something that was needed,” said De Pinto, recounting how he and his congregation advocated for the safety measure. “I think it was through prayer too, and activism of our community.”
The section of Lawrence in front of the church, which is across from Townley Avenue, is a seven-lane road with a middle left-turn lane where pedestrians stop as they attempt to cross.
“It’s like a highway,” De Pinto said.
For years the posted speed limit has been 60 kilometres an hour, although council voted in July to decrease the limit on a long stretch of Lawrence, including the section in front of Precious Blood, to 50 km/h.
There is a TTC bus stop across the street from the church, which is about 190 metres from the nearest signalized crossing at Victoria Park to the west, and 220 metres from the lights at Pharmacy Avenue to the east.
De Pinto said many of his congregants, including those who are older, take the TTC to church, and the most direct way to get there from the bus stop is to cross the seven lanes of traffic.
The priest, who has been at the church for about three years, said he first learned about his congregants’ traffic safety concerns from the local chapter of the Catholic Women’s League. After he announced from the pulpit that he would try to get a traffic signal installed, parishioners started to come forward and tell him about the spate of deaths.
“The stories started to come to me,” he said. According to De Pinto, four of the people killed were Precious Blood members, and a fifth died while crossing to a bazaar being hosted by the church.
Churchgoers told him the community had tried to get the city to install a crossing on Lawrence Avenue before, with no success.
“I said, well, let’s try again,” De Pinto said.
The Star couldn’t independently verify all five fatalities reported by Precious Blood members. However, interviews and old newspaper reports confirm at least four deaths on that stretch of Lawrence since 1984. There were other serious collisions as well, including an incident in 2015 in which an SUV driver hit three pedestrians as they crossed the road, and then struck a fourth person who was standing at a bus shelter.
Reynaldo Dizon still remembers seeing the flash of sirens outside his house 35 years ago on the evening police came to tell him his sister, Belen Lasat, had been killed crossing the street in front of the church. She was 48.
The Toronto Sun reported at the time she died of a broken neck and severe head injuries. Dizon said she attended Precious Blood but at the time of her death she was crossing the street to get to her apartment, which was next to the church.
“She made it to the centre lane,” said Dizon, who is now 78 and a retired commercial artist. “There was no crossing there. There was not even a crosswalk.”
He and his siblings had to break the terrible news to their parents, who were still living in the family’s native Philippines.
“I didn’t know how to tell them,” he recalled.
About two years ago, De Pinto enlisted Michael Thompson, the local councillor, to help him get the traffic signal installed.
A 2018 city report responding to Thompson’s request noted two deaths at the location over 20 years, in 2004 and 2011, apparently omitting a fatal pedestrian collision that media reports say occurred on Lawrence just east of Victoria Park in 2000.
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Despite referencing the pair of fatalities, city staff recommended against erecting a traffic signal at Lawrence and Townley because the location didn’t meet the transportation department’s technical requirements. Those criteria require a location to meet or exceed specific quantifiable thresholds of traffic volume, delays experienced by pedestrians attempting to cross the road, collision hazards and other factors.
Asked what role historic fatalities play in the city’s evaluation, transportation department spokesperson Hakeem Muhammad said the traffic signal warrant takes into account only collisions in the previous three years that could have been prevented by a traffic signal.
“It does not differentiate by severity,” he said.
However, in addition to the hard numbers, staff “do typically note collisions involving pedestrian injuries or fatalities for the consideration” of councillors debating a new traffic safety proposal, he said.
The traffic lights outside the church were approved only when Thompson asked his colleagues on Scarborough community council to vote against the staff recommendation. De Pinto arranged to have a busload of parishioners, including Dizon, attend the July 2018 community council meeting where councillors made the decision. The parishioners burst into cheers after the vote.
Three weeks later, the request went to city council, which gave the traffic light the official go-ahead. It will cost the city $180,000, and Muhammad said it would be activated by the end of the year.
Thompson said he didn’t want to “point the finger” at the city’s warrant system, and he understands traffic lights can’t be installed everywhere. But he said in this case it was clear the area needed a new crossing, even if it didn’t meet the technical criteria.
“Sometimes the numbers don’t really tell the story. It’s the people that do,” said Thompson (Ward 21, Scarborough Centre).
In July, as part of a wider reboot of the city’s Vision Zero road safety plan, council voted to change the way the city evaluates the need for new traffic signals and other safety measures.
In addition to the technical warrants, staff will now consider the wider context of the location, including factors such as road width, posted speed limit, operating speeds, local demographics, the presence of a transit stop and the distance between existing signalized crossings.
Dylan Reid, co-founder of pedestrian safety group Walk Toronto, said organizations like his had long been advocating for reforms to the warrant system, which he said was originally geared toward ensuring nothing impeded the flow of traffic, rather than improving safety. He said he hoped the updated system will make it easier for residents to get traffic signals and other measures in their neighbourhoods.
“I think we need to be listening to communities. If communities are saying this is an unsafe place, that’s the experience of the people living there and using that space. And I think we need to pay more attention to that,” he said.
“Hopefully now we can get some safety measures in place before someone gets killed, rather than afterwards.”