Editorial: Pedestrians race against clock

A Toronto study has linked pedestrian countdown signals with an increased rate of accidents at intersections, but in the Greater Victoria region, the signals are seen as a positive development and more will be installed.

Like most tools, how a countdown signal is used determines if it is a help or a hindrance.

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Researchers at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children analyzed data and linked countdown signals at nearly 2,000 intersections with a 26 per cent increase in the rate of collisions, with serious or fatal pedestrian-vehicle collisions jumping by 50 per cent.

The authors of the analysis, which was published in the journal Injury Prevention, said that the descending numerals, rather than making drivers and pedestrians more cautious, tend to make them hurry through the intersections.

The B.C. government sees things differently. A bulletin issued in March by the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure favours the countdown signals.

“The previous policy addressing the installation of countdown pedestrian signals permitted their use if requested and funded by a local jurisdiction,” says the bulletin. “Under this policy the ministry did not, as a standard practice, install countdown pedestrian signals. The ministry has since recognized the value of the countdown display and will change the policy so that the installation of countdown pedestrian signals is standard practice at signalized intersections.”

The province will spend $5 million this year on 50 projects to improve safety in B.C. communities; among those projects will be the installation of countdown signals at seven Nanaimo intersections.

In Victoria, pedestrian countdown signals have been installed at 45 intersections, out of a total of 130 signals, and more are planned for 2014.

“Overall, transportation staff see them as a positive installation, as they provide additional information to intersection users,” said a city official.

The District of Saanich also uses the signals, and its experience is similar to Victoria’s.

Other cities have also had positive reactions to the countdown signals. In Calgary, they are used at 195 intersections and have not caused an increase in accidents.

“We have found that they are doing their job,” said a Calgary official. “They do provide more information for pedestrians when it’s safe to cross.”

In San Francisco, a 2006 study of nine pilot locations found the signals reduced accidents by more than 50 per cent. After the city installed devices at 469 intersections, the reduction in accidents was not as dramatic, but they still accounted for 22 per cent fewer collisions.

The timing of San Francisco’s lights is different, and Dr. Andrew Howard, medical director of the Hospital for Sick Children’s trauma program, believes having the countdown end a few seconds before the amber light goes on might change people’s behaviour positively.

Or perhaps Torontonians are just in too much of a hurry, while on Vancouver Island, we are a little more laid back. It might be the difference between “Five seconds left? I know I can make it” and “Five seconds left? Better not take a chance.”

Or perhaps it can be summed up by Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry: “You’ve got to ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’ ”

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