When it comes to crosswalks, pedestrians may be wary of entrusting their safety to motorists - but in some cases it may be a better choice than turning it over to a computer.
That's what came to mind last week when the works committee unveiled its new plan to revamp crosswalks.
To stop the average 37 pedestrians killed by cars every year, Transportation Services is refitting 77 crosswalks on major arterials across Toronto; 24 will be replaced with traffic signals, and the remainder will get a makeover.
But will all the new bells and whistles make things safer, or are our traffic planners neglecting the truly low-tech way to prevent fatalities: pumping the virtues of eye-to-eye contact the way visionary officials are doing in parts of Europe?
The upgrades planned by Transportation Services include "zebra striping' on the street within the bounds of the crosswalk to emphasize the stop to motorists and encourage pedestrians to cross within its bounds. The crossover signs and flashing beacons will be made brighter, and beacons will be added to the poles on either side of the road.
As well, the TTC is being consulted on requiring streetcar drivers stopped at crosswalks to open their doors to discourage passing, and Toronto Hydro is looking into ensuring there's a light standard at every crosswalk to draw attention to people waiting to cross.
Resident Bill Brown, a deputant to the works committee meeting last week, saw problems. "The most staff can come up with is flashing lights and a can of paint,' he said. "We are not redecorating the family bathroom; we are dealing with life-and-death matters.'
Brown suggested that "rumble strips," a kind of road surfacing that gets drivers' attention by making their cars noisier, be placed on roads leading up to crosswalks, in addition to more lights at intersections and pedestrian control over traffic signals.
"When a pedestrian pushes the walk button [at a signalled intersection], a green should come up no more than 10 seconds later,' he proposed.
While Brown's suggestions raise questions about priority levels between pedestrian and vehicular traffic, the Transportation report suggests there is a line beyond which more technology might prove counterproductive. Ninety-seven pedestrian fatalities occurred at signalled intersections on major arterials from 1998 through 2005. Only 10 occurred at crosswalks within the same period.
Transportation Services general manager Gary Welsh suggests this may be because there are more signals than crosswalks. But it's not hard to imagine that crosswalks, by drawing attention to pedestrians and encouraging motorists to pay attention to their surroundings and make eye contact - rather than the more passive focus on traffic lights - may be the safer way.
It's a point made by many Dutch-inspired experiments in Europe based on the idea that uncertainty breeds caution. When speed limits are lowered and intersection lights are removed, drivers start to rely more on social rather than regulatory controls.
"The pedestrian crossover was, and still is, a passive device that relies on the motorist and pedestrian sharing responsibility for pedestrians' safety,' says the Transportation report.
Can't our traffic safety policy make more of this life-saving human-to-human communication?