A new study from the Hospital for Sick Children suggests that pedestrian countdown clocks at intersections may in fact be making pedestrians less safe.

Examining 1,965 intersections in Toronto where countdown signals were installed between January 2000 and December 2009, the study found that collisions between pedestrians and vehicles increased 26 per cent after countdown signals were installed.

“We looked at the rate of collisions before the countdown timers went up and the rates of collisions after the countdown timers went up and across all of the intersections, the average effect was more collisions … after the timers went up,” said Dr. Andrew Howard, who led the study.

The report speculates that one reason for the increase could be that motorists who are hurrying speed up when they see they have little time left to cross the intersection.

If so, the effect would be just the opposite of what the city intended when installing the countdown signals.

“Countdown timers are designed to provide supplemental information to pedestrians to aid in crossing during the ‘flashing Don’t Walk’ indication,” the city says on its website. “They are not designed to provide motorists with information related to the amount of green time remaining.”

According to the city’s website, there are more than 2,100 countdown signals at intersections across the city.

Still, Howard said he’s not against the clocks, but believes that they may need to be adjusted so that vehicles and pedestrians are less likely to occupy the same space at once.

“We have to keep tweaking how we set the environment up,” Howard said. “We’re pretty good, but we could be better.”

He said it’s important that people feel safe to walk, as the activity contributes to overall health and eases congestion.

The Sick Kids study uses data from a previous study, but corrects for temporal and seasonal effects that can play a role in the number of collisions at intersections.

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