A story on NPR that was mentioned on Slashdot a couple of days ago talks about something that I’ve been wondering for a while: are countdown timers on crosswalks at intersections leading to a decrease in pedestrian accidents at the cost of an increase in the number of vehicle accidents at these intersections? According to the NPR story, the research seems to suggest they are.
The problem is that while they give pedestrians a better idea of how much longer they have to safely cross the street, countdown timers can usually be seen by drivers who use them to decide whether they can slide through the intersection before the light changes red. This results in more drivers entering the intersection when the light is yellow (something that is an offence under Ontario’s Highway Traffic Act when you can stop safely at a yellow light [R.S.O. 1990, c. H.8, s. 144(15)]) because they think they have enough time to clear the intersection.
As a driver, it’s tempting to use the crosswalk countdown timers as an indication of how long you have until the light turns red. However, if you can safely stop when you see a yellow light, you must do so, otherwise you’re liable for a $150 to $500 in Ontario. Seeing “10” on the crosswalk timer doesn’t mean you should be accelerating to get through. Another danger is that the countdown timers are not necessarily tied 1-to-1 with all the lights turning red. At complex intersections, the crosswalk signals on one side of an intersection can switch to “don’t walk” while on the other side they stay showing “walk”, to allow a dedicated turning lane to clear. If you’re driving and are watching the crosswalk countdown timer, you could well proceed into the intersection when you shouldn’t with Bad Results.
So, what’s the solution?
The obvious solution is for drivers to only pay attention to signals that are meant for them. Unfortunately, we live in the Real World where this simply isn’t going to happen.
Another option would be to put highly directional lenses on the countdown timers so that they can only be seen by people actually in the crosswalks. There are some traffic lights that can only be seen by cars that are in just the right spot. Perhaps this could be adapted to the crosswalk countdown timers.
Maybe they could explore an alternate indication of how much time is remaining that would be easy for pedestrians using the crosswalk to interpret but less obvious for drivers. Maybe a vertical column of lights next to the flashing “don’t walk” indicator that gets shorter as the amount of time before it stops flashing decreases. That would provide an indication that is fairly clear to pedestrians, but less obvious to drivers.
Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer. 🙂