Last Thursday, a car performed an astonishingly dangerous turn in front of traffic at Lake Shore Blvd. and Bay. It collided with another car, and they both spun out of control through the intersection and onto the sidewalk, injuring 6 pedestrians, one of whom later died.
The Toronto Star story about this collision chose to focus on statements by police spokespersons complaining about the way pedestrians use pedestrian countdown signals, despite there being no evidence that this was an issue in the collision. There have already been good commentaries about the apparent blaming of the victims in this story, and a petition has been started asking the police to reconsider the way they respond to these kinds of collisions.
I’d like to focus, here, on the way the police called into question the pedestrian countdown signals. The story says “How pedestrians interpret the newer countdown-type pedestrian signals is becoming a major concern for police.” Const. Hugh Smith describes himself as “Not a strong proponent of the countdown timer on the crosswalk” and says that “What we’re finding down there is people aren’t paying attention to the countdown timers,” adding “I grew up with the stop hand and the walking person.”
Pedestrian countdown signals are in fact a successful and proven way to reduce the number of pedestrians hit in intersections. They were introduced in Toronto because they had successfully reduced vehicle-pedestrian collisions in other jurisdictions. A recent study confirmed that they reduce these collision by about 5 a month in Toronto (a study the Star reported on, although it focused on the fact that they prompt some drivers to try to beat the lights).
What’s more, they work by doing exactly what the police spokespeople say they would like pedestrians to do — pedestrians are more likely to clear the intersection before the light changes, and not start crossing if they don’t have time. When pedestrians only saw the flashing hand, most still started crossing, but many ended up getting caught in the intersection as the light changed because they had no way of knowing how much time they had to cross. The countdown timers have reduced how often that happens.
As I wrote in the latest print issue of Spacing, the average number of vehicle-pedestrian collisions and pedestrian deaths have dropped somewhat since 2004, when the pedestrian countdown signals and other safety measures (such as zebra stripes at crosswalks) began to be rolled out. While there’s no way to prove the cause, it’s reasonable to suppose that the safety measures contributed to this drop.
It seems inappropriate for police to cast doubt on a pedestrian safety measure that has proved successful. While it’s good that police are looking for opportunities to educate the public on safe behaviour, the most effective time to do that would be cases that illustrate that particular behaviour. Every year, some pedestrians who are injured or killed were indeed behaving foolishly — those would be the appropriate times to talk about pedestrian behaviour. When a driver has behaved dangerously and caused injuries and death, that’s a good opportunity to focus on safe driving.
Image from the City of Toronto “We’re all pedestrians” safety campaign, 2005.