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driving concerns

What does a flashing green light at an intersection mean in Vancouver? They’re a little slower, but I thought they meant the same thing they do everywhere else – it’s an advance green and you can turn or go straight. It took a few honks and a near-miss for me to figure out that I was wrong. Why are they different there? – Chris, Toronto

Chill, dude. It's Vancouver. Even the flashing green lights have a slower pace.

"Our green ball flashes at 60 flashes per minute (a little on the slower side) whereas the Ontario flash rate was a higher (or faster) flash rate," says a B.C. Ministry of Transportation page explaining the phenomenon. In Ontario and a few other places, a flashing green light – when you can still find one – means you can turn left without stopping.

But in British Columbia and the Yukon, that more relaxed flashing green means you're at a pedestrian-controlled intersection and you should watch out for people crossing.

"I understand it means something different in other places," says Vancouver police Const. Brian Montague. "But here, it's always been to show it's a light controlled by pedestrians."

The light keeps flashing green until somebody pushes the button to change it.

When the button is pushed, it changes like a normal light: it turns yellow and then red to stop traffic so pedestrians can cross.

Then it's back to a flashing green until the next time somebody pushes the button.

Other provinces have lights that stay green until pedestrians change them – but their greens don't flash.

So why do they flash in British Columbia?

"The reason why they flash is to differentiate them from full signals," says City of Vancouver spokesman Jag Sandhu in an e-mail.

Drivers approaching a flashing green know that the side streets have a stop sign instead of a red light – so they know traffic could be cutting across, Sandhu says Section 131 of B.C.’s Motor Vehicle Act says drivers approaching a flashing green must drive in a manner that would allow them to stop for any pedestrians that might be in the crosswalk.

Everywhere else

In Alberta, Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Northwest Territories and Nunavut, the driving manuals say a flashing green light means the same thing as a left-pointing arrow and a green light: it's an advance green. Oncoming traffic is still facing a red. You may turn left, go straight ahead or turn right.

The remaining province's manuals don't mention flashing green lights at all.

The Transportation Association of Canada (TAC), which publishes voluntary guidelines for traffic signals, recommends the flashing green arrow instead of a flashing green light.