Toronto makes subtle change to traffic lights to reduce pedestrian deaths

·3 min read
More than 500 signals have been installed in Toronto that give pedestrians a five-second head-start to cross before vehicles are permitted to enter the intersection.   (Yasmine Ghania/CBC - image credit)
More than 500 signals have been installed in Toronto that give pedestrians a five-second head-start to cross before vehicles are permitted to enter the intersection. (Yasmine Ghania/CBC - image credit)

Toronto has installed a new road safety measure at hundreds of intersections — but it's one you may not have even noticed.

The City of Toronto is adding more than 150 walk signals that give pedestrians a head start at busy intersections in a bid to decrease traffic deaths and injuries.

In 2018, Mayor John Tory announced 80 intersections would be altered to give pedestrians five seconds to cross before vehicles are permitted to enter the intersection.

The idea was that the move would make pedestrians more visible to drivers, especially those making a left turn at a stop light.

Since then, more than 500 head start signals have been installed. The city says it hopes to install 389 more by the end of this year and is almost halfway there, with 159 added as of March.

Yasmine Ghania/CBC
Yasmine Ghania/CBC

"The goal is ultimately to try and implement them at every possible location that we have within the city," said the city's traffic management director Roger Browne.

Browne says there's no data available yet on the impact of advanced signals in Toronto's streets but says research from the National Association of City Transportation Officials suggests they can reduce collisions involving pedestrians by up to 60 per cent.

21 pedestrian deaths in 2020

The advanced signals program is part of the city's Vision Zero strategy, a five-year project adopted in 2016 with a goal of completely eliminating traffic deaths and serious injuries on the city's roadways.

Toronto saw 21 pedestrian deaths last year — something largely attributed to a drop due to lower traffic levels during the COVID-19 pandemic. So far this year, nine pedestrians have died after being struck by drivers, Toronto police data shows.

Some 39 pedestrians were killed on public roads in 2019 and 41 the year before that.

Jess Spieker, chair and spokesperson for road safety advocacy group Friends and Families for Safe Streets, applauds the city for installing more head start signals.

Michael Cole/CBC News
Michael Cole/CBC News

"I think it's a wonderful idea. It's simple. Nobody seems to be upset about it," she said. "Unlike some road safety measures, it seems to be instantly accepted."

For Spieker, the matter is particularly personal.

In 2015, Spieker was riding her bike to work on Bathurst Street when she was T-boned by an SUV driver turning left. Her spine was broken and she sustained a moderate traumatic brain injury.

"To have my life irrevocably blown up by a reckless driver, there's no motorist convenience or any other consideration more important than safety on our streets," Spieker said.

Call for more traffic safety measures

Since launching the Vision Zero plan, the city has invested tens of millions in safety, however Spieker says more needs to be done to enhance pedestrian and cyclist safety.

She says the city needs to sink more dollars into the plan, implement extra traffic calming measures like narrowing traffic lanes and prohibiting drivers from turning right on any red light, as in Montreal and New York City.

This week, the city did make some changes when it comes to left turns by introducing a left-turn calming pilot.

But too often, drivers turning right choose only to look to their left for oncoming cars and forget to look right for pedestrians, according to Spieker.

"All it is, is allowing people to get home safe and unharmed and alive at the end of every day," she said.

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