Countdown to Zero – or Not?

This can be read as a public complaint about pedestrian walk signals and countdown timers. Let’s cover countdown timers first.

I first saw this phenomenon in Egypt in November 2006. Some green lights (!) had countdown timers on them. They also had standard signals for cases of unfortunate glare from sunlight etc. I thought it was pretty neat: our bus driver could know how much green light time he had before entering a crowded intersection.

Later, most of our pedestrian walk signals have gone to countdown timers, at least in the parts of the GTA I move about in. This seems to have had an unintended consequence.

The number of collisions, fatalities, pedestrian injuries seems to have gone up after implementing these timers. If you google ‘Toronto countdown dont-walk’ you’ll find a number of pages, including this one which covers what I saw in the paper today.

I submit that this occurs for several reasons. One is, someone approaching the traffic from the cross-street, anticipating the light’s changing, will clip the end of the red. Meanwhile, someone with a count-down timer will not leave any ‘slack’ in their timing of entering the same intersection, technically having the right of way.  In other words, knowing to the second when the light is going to change, lets a driver approaching that light cut it a lot closer than not-knowing. This increases the likelihood of collision, especially if another driver is also bending the law.

A second reason could be the (ignorant, imho) phenomenon of countdown timers going to zero and then reverting to ‘walk’ signals. Since this often happens when the intersection is empty, drivers approaching an empty intersection may gamble that the walk signal will be reinstated, and no orange light will occur. If there is an unnoticed vehicle approaching the intersection, again, pressing the time frame, bam. And pedestrians have a bad habit of stepping out when they are sure they’re going to have the ‘walk’ signal.

I would like to see the following changes made to pedestrian walk-don’t walk signals.

  • Never count down to zero without going to orange and red.
  • Always turn on the pedestrian ‘walk’ signal, whether a button has been pressed or not, for the green cycle.
  • add more delay to the don’t walk solid signal.
  • Occasionally, police pedestrian crossings and ticket violators – walkers, drivers, and of course cyclists entering the intersection at speed in the non-traffic direction from a sidewalk.
  • Occasionally, put speed traps in areas where collisions frequently occur.

Cyclists should have to dismount to use a sidewalk-like pedestrian crossing. Drivers speeding up a lot to make a light should get at least a warning.

I have complained about the non-walk signal (unless a button is pressed) and been given amazing bafflegab. Supposedly the button, or the presence of a car, adds three seconds to the green / walk cycle. So what? add it anyway. If I almost make a light change, I have to look at a green light / don’t walk crossing for both cycles – green and then red – before I can cross. Sounds petty, but when you’re in freezing rain or slush those extra seconds seem really long.


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