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An idiot driver yelled at my son for starting to cross at a light when the countdown had eight seconds left. My son is 12 and was really upset. It sounds like the guy was trying to turn left and he said my son got in the way and could have been killed. As a pedestrian, you're allowed to cross until the countdown hits zero, right?

- David, Toronto

Think you can start crossing the street once that timer has started? Talk to the hand.

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"It is the flashing hand that makes it illegal for a pedestrian to cross the road," Constable Clint Stibbe, with Toronto Police traffic services, said in an e-mail. "Once the hand has started flashing, anyone already on the roadway may complete the crossing, [but] no one else is allowed to start crossing."

With every timer, there's also that flashing hand. 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."

It's a $45 fine including the victim surcharge. Could a 12-year-old be charged?

"Technically, yes, but what would have to happen is the parents would have to be notified and it would end up in youth court," Stibbe said. "In reality, in most cases a 12-year-old wouldn't be charged with an offence, but would be cautioned."

So if you can't start crossing when the countdown has started, what's the countdown for?

"The countdown indicates how much time is left for pedestrians to complete their crossing," Bob Nichols, Ontario Ministry of Transportation spokesman, said in an e-mail. "Pedestrians who entered a crosswalk lawfully may complete their crossing, despite a change in the pedestrian signal indication."

The flashing hand also allows drivers turning left to clear the intersection, Stibbe said.

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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.

"I think one of the things we may be seeing with the initial way these signals were set up, people see they have a certain amount of time and spend it on convenience rather than safety," said Dr. Andrew Howard, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon at Sick Kids hospital and one of the study's researchers. "They think: 'I have eight seconds, I'll make it across the road.' "

The study, which looked at 1,965 intersections between 2000 and 2009, was a second look at data that had previously shown countdown timers had no effect on pedestrian safety.

The countdown timers haven't been a "slam dunk" for safety and more needs to be done, Howard said.

"If you look at walking speeds of older people, there are places where you can't make a crossing in the time allowed," Howard said. "So there's a huge challenge to put it together in a manner that works for everybody from 8 to 80."

Fines and enforcement alone aren't the answer, Howard said.

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"You can't expect a 12-year-old to know all the nuances of the Highway Traffic Act," Howard said. "Before I started working on this study, I didn't know that you couldn't start crossing after the countdown had started."

There have been various suggestions on how to make intersections safer for pedestrians while still allowing cars to clear, including signs explaining the law to pedestrians, hiding the countdown lights from drivers so they don't race through a light before it turns red, or delaying the green light after the countdown ends so drivers have time to clear the intersection.

In areas with a lot of pedestrian traffic, Howard says the pedestrian scramble intersection, where cars are stopped in all directions and pedestrians, could be another solution.

"We've come to a citywide consensus on the need for a Vision Zero plan that reduces risk for pedestrians," Howard said. "We want to have a walkable city where you're not worried about your 12-year-old child's safety."

Have a driving question? Send it to globedrive@globeandmail.com. Canada's a big place, so please let us know where you are so we can find the answer for your city and province.

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