The most important thing to realize about the pedestrian countdown signal is that it is only relevant to people who start crossing after the “flashing hand” has begun. In other words, its existence indicates that the City both assumes and accepts that pedestrians will start crossing during the flashing hand phase.
We are sometimes told that the countdown is there to help people who started crossing during the “walking man” phase know how much time they have. But in fact, by law, they do not need any help. Ontario’s Highway Traffic Act (HTA), section 144(28) specifically states that any pedestrian who starts crossing legally (i.e. with the walking man signal) has the right of way for however long it takes them to cross the road at their personal full speed — even if the light against them turns red.
Every pedestrian who lawfully enters a roadway in order to cross may continue the crossing as quickly as reasonably possible despite a change in the indication he or she is facing and, for purposes of the crossing, has the right of way over vehicles.
So the countdown is not relevant for people who start crossing with the walking man signal.
Why does it exist, then? The real but unspoken reason is to let people who might start crossing during the flashing hand phase judge whether they have enough time to cross. The installation of the countdowns was effectively an admission that the City does not expect pedestrians to obey the letter of the law (the HTA, 144(27), states that pedestrians must not start crossing on the flashing “don’t walk” signal).
Recent changes in City policy have in fact made it even more reasonable for people to start crossing during the countdown. In a effort to give people who move more slowly such as many seniors, people with mobility impairments, and parents with children more time to cross the street safely, the City has begun re-timing the countdowns so that they allow for a walking speed of 1.0 metres/second (down from the old 1.2 metres/second standard). That means that countdowns now give a very long time to cross indeed — and people who can move more quickly can easily cross safely after the countdown starts. At intersections with long intervals, it also means that the amount of time that the “walking man” shows has been reduced, so that there’s only a narrow window for pedestrians to start crossing during that phase.
The original goal of introducing pedestrian countdowns was explicitly to improve pedestrian safety. Studies had shown that, with a countdown, there were fewer pedestrians left exposed in the intersection after the light had turned (recall that, in the old days, when you saw a flashing hand you had no idea how much time you might have to cross). The countdown signals have never been about improving vehicle movements, contrary to some recent statements from the police.
I was a member of the Toronto Pedestrian Committee back in 2006 when the program was launched, and we explicitly asked about the law regarding not crossing against the flashing hand. The Toronto Police Services representative at the committee said that it was rarely enforced, and that they themselves could not recall an instance of it being enforced.
That’s changed. Now, we hear the mayor and police representatives recalling this once-obscure law in the media. As far as I can tell, the law was taken out of the deep freeze and dusted off after there was an outcry in the media about pedestrian safety following an unusual string of deaths in the winter of 2010. The response to this outcry about pedestrian safety was a police blitz that focused on “jaywalking” and the little-known countdown law. The effect was to focus attention on pedestrian behaviour, and away from driver behaviour and unsafe infrastructure issues (note that a report from the Medical Officer of Health (PDF) found that in 2/3 of collisions hitting pedestrians, the pedestrian had the right-of-way).
Earlier this month, New York City recognized the absurdity of the situation and changed its rules regarding pedestrian countdowns. Now, pedestrians are free to start crossing during the countdown, and are simply required to be clear of the intersection by the time the countdown stops. It’s up to them to judge if they can make it — which makes sense given the very different speeds at which different pedestrians move. Unfortunately, Toronto can’t make this change itself, as it it dependent on the province to change the HTA. But the City and the Toronto Police Service could, at least, go back to signalling that they are not going to worry about technicalities, and instead focus on what is important for safety, which is that pedestrians who start crossing during the countdown make sure they have cleared the intersection when the light changes.