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A man runs across the intersection of Pacific Street and Drake Street in Vancouver on March 7. Experts say once the countdown begins or hand starts flashing, don't start crossing the intersection.Jason Tchir/The Globe and Mail

I was surprised to learn that people aren’t supposed to start crossing at intersections after the countdown starts. I don’t think most people know that – or, if they do, they don’t care. I know I race across sometimes if it’s raining or if I’m in a hurry. Do these countdowns actually make intersections safer? If not, are there other ways to make them safer? – Carolyn, Toronto

That pedestrian countdown isn’t supposed to be a challenge – once the numbers start counting down and hand starts flashing, you’re not supposed to cross the street. But while the countdowns are designed to make crossing more predictable for pedestrians, by showing how many seconds are left before the light turns yellow, it’s not clear whether they make all intersections safer.

“In Canada, most [countdowns] are set up to notify pedestrians when not to enter the intersection, but in reality, pedestrians use the countdown signals to judge how long before the light turns to yellow,” said Pamela Fuselli, chief executive officer of Parachute, a non-profit organization that focuses on injury prevention. “In terms of evidence, the literature evaluating the effectiveness of pedestrian countdown signals is mixed.”

In most Canadian cities, the countdown starts when the flashing hand appears. That flashing hand means you shouldn’t start crossing – and if you’re already crossing, it means you should get to the other side as quickly as you safely can. At the end of the countdown, the hand stops flashing and becomes solid – just as the light turns amber.

In most Canadian cities, the countdown starts when the flashing hand appears. In most provinces, that flashing hand means you shouldn’t start crossing – and if you’re already crossing, it means you should get to the other side as quickly as you safely can. At the end of the countdown, the hand stops flashing and becomes solid – just as the light turns amber.

Quebec is an exception: there, the flashing hand means you can start crossing if you can do it safely.

Numerical countdowns are supposed to offer more certainty because they tell you how much time you have left to complete your crossing.

Studies in different cities have shown both decreases and increases in the number of pedestrians hit by cars after countdown timers were installed at intersections. For instance, a 2017 study looking at collisions four years before and four years after numerical countdowns were installed in Toronto found a 5-per-cent increase in adult pedestrians hit by cars at intersections with the timers – and a 9-per-cent increase in seniors hit by cars. That increase may have been because people are running to beat the light.

“Pedestrians may misuse the information from a [countdown time] to cross the street quickly, rather than to use the information to cross safely,” the study said. “We regularly observe adults initiating crossings, by running if needed, with inadequate time remaining on the [timer].

Limited time only

But the timers themselves may not be the problem, said Lewis Smith, manager of special projects with the Canada Safety Council (CSC), an Ottawa-based charitable organization that promotes safety.

“When properly implemented and adhered to, the countdowns are an effective safety-enhancing tool,” Smith said. “We advocate for predictable behaviours from drivers as well as vulnerable road users like pedestrians. When infrastructure is put into place that helps make signage more predictable, it helps individual road users’ ability to follow suit.”

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Countdown timers are most effective at making crosswalks safer when they give the average person “a reasonable amount of time” to finish crossing after they enter the intersection on the walk sign, Smith said.

There’s also a need for more education about the purpose of the countdown timer – for both drivers and pedestrians.

“Pedestrians need to be aware of the fact that they should not be entering the intersection after the countdown has started; it’s specifically set to allow time to finish crossing, not to start crossing when it’s already counting down,” Smith said. “And drivers need to be conscious of the fact that a signal that is counting down is not an indication that they should speed up [to beat the light before it turns red].”

Police in Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto and Montreal didn’t have statistics immediately available for the number of pedestrians injured or killed at intersections in recent years. Winnipeg’s 2020 collision report looked at pedestrians injured or killed by cars that year. Out of 60 pedestrians injured when hit by cars, 35 – or 58 per cent – occurred at an intersection. The majority of those collisions – 30 out of 35 – happened while pedestrians were crossing with the right-of-way.

Other measures are key

While countdowns can provide some “peace of mind” to older pedestrians, intersections need to be better designed for pedestrian safety, said Tho Dinh-Zarr, senior advisor on public health and transportation for the Traffic Injury Research Foundation (TIRF) in Ottawa.

“Key ways to keep pedestrians safe at intersections are by reducing speeds, providing protected places for people to walk, and making pedestrians more visible,” Dinh-Zarr said.

Some ways to do that are to add curb extensions at the corners to narrow the road, install pedestrian islands midway across the road and paint more visible crosswalk markings.

Redesigning intersections to be roundabouts can reduce collisions because cars are usually driving slower and pedestrians are spending less time on the road, “assuming, of course, they’re crossing at the designated crossing areas and not over the central island,” CSC’s Smith said. Pedestrian scrambles – where all traffic stops and pedestrians cross in all directions at once – can also boost safety, Dinh-Zarr said.

Studies have shown that scrambles reduce collisions between cars and pedestrians by 39 to 57 per cent. Better measures are necessary because, in a crash, pedestrians are 284 times more likely to be killed or injured than motorists, Dinh-Zarr said.

Changing the timing of lights can also make a difference, Parachute’s Fuselli said.

Starting the walk sign before the light turns green – which is called a leading pedestrian signal or an advance walk signal – has been shown to reduce collisions between cars and pedestrians anywhere from 21 to 58 per cent, Fuselli said.

Toronto, for instance, has 903 intersections where the walk sign comes on five seconds before the light turns green – so pedestrians have time to cross while the light is red in all directions. Other ways to improve safety are to ban right turns on red lights, move the stop lines for cars further back from the crosswalk and have advanced left-turn lights so cars can make left turns without pedestrians crossing, Fuselli said.

While cities need to design better intersections, drivers and pedestrians have responsibilities too. They should always obey the rules of the road, Fuselli said, and they’ve got to pay attention.

“Drivers need to eliminate distractions,” she said.

For their part, pedestrians need to make sure drivers can see them – for instance, by making eye contact before crossing – and drivers have to be vigilant, CSC’s Smith said.

“Collisions don’t often happen intentionally – they’re usually a by-product of one party not seeing the other in time,” Smith said. “Keeping eyes moving and scanning the road constantly is a behaviour that no amount of infrastructure can replace.”

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