The Countdown Clock Law is Ridiculous, and so is the Police Pedestrian Blitz
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The Countdown Clock Law is Ridiculous, and so is the Police Pedestrian Blitz

The pedestrian countdown clock law shows what's wrong with Toronto's approach to road issues.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one.

A woman crosses University Avenue, on Queen Street.

A police officer, smiling sheepishly, stops her at the centre median as she prepares to cross the last four lanes, with 14 seconds left on the countdown signal.

The two exchange words. The woman points to the countdown. The constable shakes his head, always smiling. He looks embarrassed, but remains firm. The woman looks baffled.

She should be. Even though I was watching from across the street—part of my daily bike to work—I have a pretty good idea of how that conversation went:

-‘Scuse me, ma’am, you have to wait.
– Pardon?
– You can’t cross, you have to wait until the next light.
– But I have time…

Then the bashful constable hits her with the wild “Actually….”

Police are, once again, informing pedestrians that, under the Highway Traffic Act, it is illegal to begin crossing the street once the countdown clock has started. Under the strict letter of the law, the countdown is designed to inform those already crossing of how much time they have to finish.

And why are they enforcing this pedantic, counterintuitive, little-known, and rarely observed law?

Because drivers keep killing people with their cars.

Get it? It’s hilarious.

Follow me here: pedestrian deaths in Toronto have risen 15 per cent in the past five years, according to the Globe and Mail’s Oliver Moore. That’s bad. Brutal, really.

So, it behooves Mayor John Tory and city council to address this deadly trend, and they have… sort of.

An $80-million, five-year Road Safety Plan was announced. Vision Zero, the wildly successful approach to reducing collisions to zero being adopted by major cities the world over, was paid lip service.

But Tory is at odds with himself. He was happy to tout the benefits of a Road Safety Plan, all the while promising to keep traffic flowing at all costs. As well, he’s under the pressure of his own promises to keep taxes low.

You can’t have it both ways. A true Vision Zero plan involves lowering default speed limits, which the Road Safety Plan doesn’t do. It also involves physically redesigning our streets, in many places, so they are collision-proof. That would cost a lot of money, and Tory has already over-promised on spending (see Scarborough Subway, SmartTrack, Gardiner East Expressway, Rail Deck Park), all the while swearing to keep taxes low.

And so, police officers are haranguing pedestrians at the mayor’s behest, as we place the blame for traffic collisions, as well as congestion, squarely on the most vulnerable road users. Plus ça change.

This law, and this attitude, is exactly the problem with this car-centric city’s approach to road issues. The rationale is, with pedestrians out of the way during the countdown, more cars are able to turn right on a red light—a privilege which doesn’t even exist in some places, like Quebec—and, boom, congestion is solved.

CityNews’ Audra Brown did a streeter, from inside a car, bemoaning how long it took for her to turn right. To which police spokesman Constable Clint Stibbe provided this reply:

“There’s a perfect example of somebody that’s not using the roadway properly but is the first to complain about maybe being involved in a collision. The reality is they have no priority on the road, and had something had happened, that group that was entering the roadway, really, they shouldn’t have been there.”

That’s chilling. Imagine complaining about being hit by a damned car!

But the takeaway is “they have no priority on the road.” Right. Pedestrians rarely do in this town. We’re so worried about congestion, about traffic flow, but the fact is congestion is caused by too many cars on the road. Full stop. The best way to combat congestion is to have fewer cars on the road. This could involve congestion pricing like London, England. It could also be as simple as making alternatives to driving safer and more attractive, wherever possible.

We have to get past this driver entitlement. That woman I saw crossing University at 9 a.m. on a Friday? She’s not out for a cheeky stroll, she’s trying to get to work, just the same as the folks in the endless rows of sedans I managed to squeeze my bike through. Why is her time less important?

I did a field test, just steps from my house, to demonstrate just how impractical this countdown law is. The short version is, the countdown is 15 seconds, but it only takes 10 seconds for me to leisurely cross my street. The amount of time between the beginning of the countdown, and the time I can legally cross again is a solid minute.

Now imagine it’s that sloppy November rain that really gets into your bones. Imagine I have to do this for several blocks. This is Canada! Those minutes add up. At that point, I don’t much care about making some driver, perfectly content in their climate-controlled car, wait an extra few seconds.

This is a foolish law, and this crackdown is antithetical to council’s stated goals. Rather than wasting police resources on enforcing it, we should be appealing to the province to scrap it altogether, as they did in New York City.

Until then, this is a law I’ll continue to scoff.

I just can’t take it seriously.