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Fixed to a pole beside the city street is a small bucket with a handful of red-orange flags that pedestrians can wave to increase their visibility as they cross the intersection.

But on a recent weekday, no one was using them. Not the man pushing a stroller or the couple with a dog. One woman holding a toddler brushed the magazine-sized flags aside as she reached for the crosswalk button, and then set out without grabbing one. Two pedestrians joked about whether to use a flag but then crossed without them.

Although little-used, the flags are highly contentious. The volunteer group that installs them believes the flags are popular, saying that in response to public requests they’ve put them in more than 150 locations around the amalgamated city of Halifax. But critics say the flags are pointless or, worse, cause risk by inducing a false sense of security and expectation, and places the burden on pedestrians to be seen.

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Community crosswalk flags rest in a container attached to a pole at the foot of a crosswalk in Halifax on Oct. 27, 2018.Darren Calabrese

In the past few years, a number of North American cities have become more attentive at tackling pedestrian safety. The danger is not as acute in Halifax, where drivers tend to be deferential and fatalities in recent years haven’t exceeded the low single digits. But an average of 175 pedestrians have been hurt in collisions in each of the past five years.

For Norm Collins that’s not good enough. The founder of the Crosswalk Safety Society of Nova Scotia was motivated into action by the traffic deaths of two local young women and started ordering high-visibility flags, writing safety messages on them himself. The flags, which come from the United States, are paid for by donations. It costs about $250 to outfit one intersection with them.

Halifax Regional Municipality Council eventually ordered a freeze on the installation of the flags, but councillors voted last year against staff’s recommendation to continue the freeze, deciding to allow them to be installed at crossing points where there are no flashing lights or other safety measures. The issue is set to be revisited again this fall, though, with an update from city staff on crosswalk flags expected to come before council.

Halifax is the only major Canadian city with such a flag program, and transportation staff there are among those dubious of the idea.

“I would argue that there is little value to this,” said Taso Koutroulakis, manager of traffic management for Halifax Regional Municipality. “We need to focus on initiatives that potentially directly translate into safer crosswalks, and make it safer for all road-users.”

The city’s observations suggest 6 per cent of pedestrians use flags at crossings with flashing lights, but use drops to 2 per cent at the sort of basic intersections where they can now be installed.

In some cases usage of flags may be even lower. A reporter watched 103 pedestrians cross at four intersections across the city over a total of two hours, without anyone using a flag. During a two-hour interview with Mr. Collins adjacent to such a crossing, no one was spotted carrying a flag.

“I guess I see the flags for kids,” explained Sue Hutchinson, after crossing a quiet street in the central city, near a junior school, two universities and a medical facility. “As an adult I feel I can handle [the crossing].”

Mr. Collins argues that even unused flags, flapping in the bucket, can serve as a visual reminder to drivers. But he’s sure they are used, pointing to the fact they sometimes end up bunched on one side of the road. And he’s convinced that they prompt drivers to yield to pedestrians.

For their own test, city staff crossed 300 times at a pair of intersections. They found that drivers gave way 94 per cent of the time when flags were being carried and 89 per cent of the time at crossings where there were no flags. Driver compliance was lowest, at 86 per cent, when flags were present but not carried.

The study suggests that the current situation in Halifax, in which flags are present but are rarely used, is the most dangerous of the three scenarios.

“The sample size was quite small,” Mr. Koutroulakis cautioned. “From a statistical perspective, you know, the results in my view are not as solid as they could be.”

Staff also raised the concern that they had observed pedestrians arguing about whether flag use was mandatory, and were worried that the presence of the flags gave the pedestrians a false sense of security.

Crosswalk flags began to appear in the U.S. in the 1990s, with mixed results. Dozens of smaller municipalities use them, while some bigger cities have abandoned them.

Seattle tested flags and concluded “there was not a consistent pattern of improved [driver] compliance observed.” A test in Berkeley was stopped after staff found it “did not appear to have a significant effect” on pedestrian safety.

“I think that they do provide some small measure of safety, but I also feel that they make people feel safer and I think that’s also valuable," said Halifax deputy mayor Waye Mason, who admits it being politically difficult to turn down a request for a flag

“You’re looking at, you know, parents or concerned seniors or whatever. It’s really hard to say to them, no, you don’t get a crosswalk flag.”

Even supporters of the measure argue that roads still need to be re-designed to be more pedestrian friendly and to get motorists to drive at safer speeds. It’s a vision that Halifax, which has a new road safety plan, hopes to move gradually toward.

In the meantime, Mr. Collins argues that his flags have a place. But Graham Larkin, the head of the safety advocacy group Vision Zero Canada, argues they are counter-productive and a way to shift blame onto pedestrians when they are hit.

“It is extremely unfair to place the safety onus on the vulnerable, who are after all engaged in a perfectly benign activity,” Mr. Larkin said in a written exchange.

“The state really has no business training vulnerable [pedestrians] to protect themselves. To say that such training ‘sends the wrong message’ is putting it far too mildly. That shifting of responsibility perpetuates injustice. Critics are right to call it victim-blaming.”

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