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Countdown signals safer for pedestrians, but risky for impatient drivers

Published April 10, 2013

It was designed to make us safer, but the “countdown” pedestrian traffic signal may have actually increased car accidents at Toronto intersections.

That’s the conclusion of a new study looking at the effect of installing the new pedestrian signals across the city.

University of Toronto doctoral students Arvind Magesan and Sacha Kapoor observed 1,794 intersections between 2004 and 2008. The first countdown signals were added in November 2006.

The researchers found the new pedestrian signals made pedestrians safer, estimating about five fewer collisions between cars and pedestrians per month.

But the story changes for vehicle-on-vehicle collisions, the study says.

Magesan estimated that the city averaged a total of about 22 more such collisions per month involving intersections with pedestrian countdowns than those that didn’t have them.

The reason lies in driver impatience, says Magesan, now an assistant professor at the University of Calgary.

“I’m pulling up to a light and see this information that tells me, if I speed up, I’ll make it. And if I don’t, I won’t,” he said.

“We’re seeing that most drivers are responding by speeding up.”

Collisions in the city decreased overall between 2004 and 2008. But in intersections with one of the new countdown signals, that decline happened slower, Magesan explained.

Mike Brady, manager of traffic for the city’s transportation service department, is skeptical about the findings, saying an increase in collisions doesn’t add up.

“In terms of telling the pedestrian community, or the entire community, that these devices have made it safer or not, we really need to look at the long-term impacts,” he said.

To figure that out, the city is observing how the clocks have changed the way pedestrians act at intersections, research that’s still being conducted.

Both agree drivers may use the countdown clocks to decide whether they can beat a red light.

“Their focus really should be on the activities within the intersection and not the count display on the signal head,” Brady said.

The researchers suggest the impulsive race against the clock could be eliminated by finding a way to make the countdown visible for pedestrians and but hidden from drivers — something Brady says the city may consider.

“Once we’ve done more thorough analysis, if we find indicators that behaviour is very consistent, then I’m thinking that we will look at the output of those particular displays.”

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