Down for the Count

About five years ago, municipalities across the United States, Canada, and likely points elsewhere began installing new technology for crosswalk safety. Gone were many of the simple “WALK” or “DON’T WALK” signals like this one:


They were, instead, replaced by ones with countdown clocks, telling pedestrians how much time they had before they could no longer safely cross the street. The video below is a decent example:



These new crosswalk signals had a pretty clear goal: keep pedestrians safer by giving them advanced warning as to when the traffic lights would change. And guess what? According to a study published in 2014 written by a pair of economists (pdf available here), the crosswalks worked. The two researchers, Sacha Kapoor and Arvind Magesan, studied the change in accident rates at nearly 2,000 intersections in Toronto and concluded the pedestrians stopped when the timer ticked too low and rushed to safety at other times — and as a result, dangerous intersections became less dangerous. The planned outcome of the new crosswalk signals worked.

Unfortunately, the researchers discovered that pedestrians weren’t the only ones making use of the countdown. Drivers were noticing them too, and that unintended use had an unintended — and hardly positive — outcome. Toronto was left with a bunch more car accidents. NPR explains:

The largest increase is in rear-end accidents and we think it’s because two cars approaching a light, who both see the countdown, the guy behind, he sees the two or three seconds and thinks, oh, the guy in front of me is going to floor it too, I’ll floor it and we’ll both get through the intersection. Whereas the guy in front thinks, OK, I only have two or three seconds left, I’m going to slowdown. And this is exactly the type of accident that would happen in that case.

To make matters worse, the researchers (per NPR) discovered that “the biggest increases in crashes come at intersections that were previously safe intersections. Further, as drivers got used to the timers, they began to realize that even having one second left on the clock is enough time to get through the intersection, if they’re willing to gun the engine, even if recklessly. So, over time, the rate of accidents at these intersections increased.

Unfortunately, Toronto’s city government, upon hearing of the research, objected to the results and showed little interest in making any changes, at least not initially. If Toronto or any other city wishes to fix the problem, though, the solutions put forth by Kapoor and Magesan are pretty simple: either find a way to shield the countdown information from drivers or, if that proves difficult, put the old-style crosswalk signals in generally safe intersections. That second idea wouldn’t be out of the ordinary — it is exactly the strategy New York City employs.

AnchorBonus Fact: Kappor and Magesan’s paper, linked above, is titled “Paging Inspector Sands: The Costs of Public Information.” That’s a pretty cryptic title — not only does it make no mention of traffic signals or crosswalks, but also: who is Inspector Sands? The authors, thankfully, explain in their paper: “Theater companies in the United Kingdom are believed to use the code name ‘Inspector Sands’ in order to alert ushers to pending emergencies, such as fires and bomb threats, without inciting panic among their patrons. When theater staff learn of a fire, for example, they page Inspector Sands to the fire’s location. When ushers arrive they can put out the fire or help to evacuate the premises in a discrete and orderly manner. By ensuring the threat remains hidden from the public eye, the code name allows ushers to complete the tasks without having to deal with panicked crowds.”

From the ArchivesDriven to Distraction: What happens when you get rid of almost all the crosswalks and traffic signals? It may make roads safer.

Related: If you want to make your own traffic signal or crosswalk, you’ll need a computer board like this one. As of this writing, it’s unavailable, so you may have to wait to create your own municipality.