A citywide pedestrian safety campaign brought more controversy than awareness when Toronto traffic police tried to clear up confusion on countdown timers — which some pedestrians say aren’t confusing at all but “contradictory.”

On Wednesday morning, Sgt. Brett Moore from Toronto police traffic services was at University Ave. and Front St. W. to discuss countdown timers at crosswalks and intersections, the topic of Day 3 of the city’s annual March Break pedestrian safety campaign.

Pedestrians cross the street outside Old City Hall on Queen St. W. on Wednesday. (RENE JOHNSTON / TORONTO STAR)

The weeklong campaign addresses both drivers and pedestrians, Moore said, with a focus on enforcement and education efforts. He said police would be especially enforcing laws on speeding, distracted driving, impaired driving and reckless driving during the week.

Moore said police addressed countdown timers because road safety is a “shared responsibility.”

“People are often, it seems when we talk to them, confused in terms of exactly how they are meant to be used.”

As part of the campaign, Toronto police posted a video with a tutorial on using countdown timers.

Moore said the confusion sets in when the countdown numbers replace the walk sign, and drivers making turns once the countdown timer ends.

According to the video, pedestrians are only supposed to cross when the solid walking sign is displayed. When the sign is flashing or the countdown begins, only pedestrians who are already in the midst of crossing should continue.

Those who are not are supposed to wait for the sign to change.

Moore said pedestrians caught starting to cross the street when the countdown begins can be charged a $35 fine.

“The message is that we’re seeing too many unnecessary risks taken by drivers and vulnerable road users — pedestrians and cyclists, when it comes to intersections specifically,” he said. “With countdown timers, we’re just trying to put the misinformation to rest.”

“It’s these conflict pinch points at intersections when if used correctly, much less chance for risk, but when used incorrectly, causes people to take chances, dart across intersections when maybe it’s not expected. We see similar things at the TTC with buses and streetcars,” he said.

On Wednesday, Moore advised road users to finish their turns if they were part of the way through the intersections, but to resist the urge to rush through street signals on turns.

“We know people are busy and potentially late for work and what not, but we are asking folks to try to resist that temptation to dart across intersections when it’s contrary to the signals that you’ve got,” he said.

A police Traffic Services tweet on countdown timers incited pushback from Torontonians on social media, who said the timers are not misunderstood, but ignored because they prioritize the driver’s convenience.

One Twitter user said at some intersections the countdown starts immediately, giving him “no time to even start crossing.”

“Countdown timers are NOT misunderstood, thank you very much,” tweeted another. “The timers are often ignored because they are blatantly unfair, discriminatory and only serve to facilitate driver convenience.”

Kyle Ashley, a former parking enforcement officer with the Toronto Police turned road safety advocate, told the Star he thinks there’s room for improvement, specifically in shifting the crackdown away from pedestrians.

“When we look at the damage that can be done by a vehicle versus somebody crossing the road, penalizing those who may not have the means or are choosing alternative means of transportation — you know hundreds of people crossing the road with one car making a turn — the priority should be given to those who are on feet, who are more vulnerable,” said Ashley.

He pointed to city council’s move to install leading pedestrian crossing intervals as part of its Vision Zero road safety plan — something he’d like to see at more intersections.

The crossings gives pedestrians a five- to seven-second head start before the light turns green for vehicles. It aims to help pedestrians who were “hindered by aggressive right turns” on crosswalks, according to the City of Toronto.

Ashley said the push against “misinformation” on countdown timers and fining pedestrians is a “waste of police resources.”

“It treats the public and pedestrians like we’re stupid. It’s not hard to understand the countdown timer — it reaches zero and the light changes,” said Ashley, who added that he found the tutorial on countdown timers “very condescending.”

“My biggest criticism is that they’re targeting the wrong people — people aren’t licensed to walk but they are licensed to drive, so I don’t know why the police are treating us like we need a licence to walk or an education campaign.”

With files from Claire Floody

Source: The Toronto Star