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A crosswalk at the corner of Richards and Nelson Streets in Vancouver.

Jason Tchir/The Globe and Mail

When the countdown starts at a crosswalk, doesn’t that mean that you’re not supposed to start crossing? I always wait, and my friends say I’m being ridiculous. They say that if it says five seconds, you’ve got five seconds to get across. Who’s right? – Gabriela, Toronto

That countdown isn’t a challenge — if you haven’t started crossing before it starts, you’re supposed to stay put. Except plenty of us don’t know that.

“I got in an argument with a pedestrian who’d started crossing and said ‘I have 10 seconds left,’“ said Toronto Police Sgt. Clint Stibbe. “The countdown is how much time you have left when you’re in the roadway already.”

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When the countdown starts, it’s accompanied by a flashing hand. That hand means “don’t walk.”

Section 144 (27) of Ontario’s Highway Traffic Act (HTA) says “no pedestrian approaching pedestrian-control signals and facing a solid or flashing ‘don’t walk’ indication shall enter the roadway.”

Legally, you can only start crossing when the walk signal is on.

If you step off the curb to cross when that flashing hand is there – whether it’s flashing or solid – you could face a $35 fine.

Before intersections had timers, there was just the flashing hand, and crossers wouldn’t know how long they had to get across, Stibbe said.

The countdown was supposed to help solve that. But plenty of pedestrians think it means you can keep crossing until the last second.

A 2013 study published in the journal Injury Prevention showed that after countdown timers were introduced in Toronto, the number of pedestrians hit by cars while crossing increased by 26 per cent, and serious injuries and fatalities increased by 51 per cent.

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When the countdown starts, don’t cross

The exact rules vary by province, but they’re all similar – you’re not supposed to cross when that hand is flashing, period.

“If you see anything other than the white walk signal, you’re supposed to remain on the curb until the light resets,” said Const. Jason Doucette, Vancouver Police spokesman. “Even if it says 27 seconds and you think you can make it, you’re supposed to stay.”

If you try to beat the clock in British Columbia, it’s a $109 fine.

If you do race across, you could get in the way of cars trying to turn left before the light changes. And they might not see you.

Police couldn’t immediately give numbers on how many tickets they give out for crossing against the countdown.

“We don’t get brownie points for giving out tickets, so we focus more on education,” Doucette said.

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When police do educate crossers on the rules, the lesson doesn’t always sink in.

“This university student said, ‘I get it, am I free to go?’ – and then she looks and sees she has ten seconds and races across,” Doucette said. “She got a ticket; she was so focused on getting to the bus that she put her safety at risk.”

Enough time to cross?

In Toronto, the walk sign flashes for a minimum of seven seconds. It’s not long enough to get across, so pedestrians also get the time shown on the timer to clear the intersection.

Even with the timer, it might not be enough time for everyone, especially seniors. In Toronto, the city is retiming intersections to account for a slower average walking speed, lowered from 1.2 metres a second (4.3 km/h) to one metre a second (3.6 km/h).

Still, you should try to get to the other side as quickly as you safely can; the crosswalk probably isn’t the best place to text or fool around. Drivers should expect people to be in a crosswalk, but that doesn’t guarantee safety, police say.

“The safest place is on the sidewalk,” Doucette said. “Get across the intersection and get your head out of you phone. Just because you have the right of way, it doesn’t mean drivers will see you.”

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