Crit­ics say cross­walk flags may do more harm than good

The Globe and Mail (Ottawa/Quebec Edition) - - NEWS - OLIVER MOORE

The flags are cur­rently in 150 in­ter­sec­tions in Hal­i­fax, in­stalled by vol­un­teer groups

Fixed to a pole be­side the city street is a small bucket with a hand­ful of red-or­ange flags that pedes­tri­ans can wave to in­crease their vis­i­bil­ity as they cross the in­ter­sec­tion.

But on a re­cent week­day, no one was us­ing them. Not the man push­ing a stroller or the cou­ple with a dog. One woman hold­ing a tod­dler brushed the mag­a­zine-sized flags aside as she reached for the cross­walk but­ton, and then set out with­out grab­bing one. Two pedes­tri­ans joked about whether to use a flag but then crossed with­out them.

Al­though lit­tle-used, the flags are highly con­tentious. The vol­un­teer group that in­stalls them be­lieves the flags are pop­u­lar, say­ing that in re­sponse to pub­lic re­quests they’ve put them in more than 150 lo­ca­tions around the amal­ga­mated city of Hal­i­fax. But crit­ics say the flags are point­less or, worse, cause risk by in­duc­ing a false sense of se­cu­rity and ex­pec­ta­tion, and places the bur­den on pedes­tri­ans to be seen.

In the past few years, a num­ber of North Amer­i­can ci­ties have be­come more at­ten­tive at tack­ling pedes­trian safety. The dan­ger is not as acute in Hal­i­fax, where drivers tend to be def­er­en­tial and fa­tal­i­ties in re­cent years haven’t ex­ceeded the low sin­gle dig­its. But an aver­age of 175 pedes­tri­ans have been hurt in col­li­sions in each of the past five years.

For Norm Collins that’s not good enough. The founder of the Cross­walk Safety So­ci­ety of Nova Sco­tia was mo­ti­vated into ac­tion by the traf­fic deaths of two lo­cal young women and started order­ing high-vis­i­bil­ity flags, writ­ing safety mes­sages on them him­self. The flags, which come from the United States, are paid for by do­na­tions. It costs about $250 to out­fit one in­ter­sec­tion with them.

Hal­i­fax Re­gional Mu­nic­i­pal­ity Coun­cil even­tu­ally or­dered a freeze on the in­stal­la­tion of the flags, but coun­cil­lors voted last year against staff’s rec­om­men­da­tion to con­tinue the freeze, de­cid­ing to al­low them to be in­stalled at cross­ing points where there are no flash­ing lights or other safety mea­sures. The is­sue is set to be re­vis­ited again this fall, though, with an up­date from city staff on cross­walk flags ex­pected to come be­fore coun­cil.

Hal­i­fax is the only ma­jor Cana­dian city with such a flag pro­gram, and trans­porta­tion staff there are among those du­bi­ous of the idea.

“I would ar­gue that there is lit­tle value to this,” said Taso Koutroulakis, man­ager of traf­fic man­age­ment for Hal­i­fax Re­gional Mu­nic­i­pal­ity. “We need to fo­cus on ini­tia­tives that po­ten­tially di­rectly trans­late into safer cross­walks, and make it safer for all road-users.”

The city’s ob­ser­va­tions sug­gest 6 per cent of pedes­tri­ans use flags at cross­ings with flash­ing lights, but use drops to 2 per cent at the sort of ba­sic in­ter­sec­tions where they can now be in­stalled.

In some cases us­age of flags may be even lower. A re­porter watched 103 pedes­tri­ans cross at four in­ter­sec­tions across the city over a to­tal of two hours, with­out any­one us­ing a flag. Dur­ing a two-hour in­ter­view with Mr. Collins ad­ja­cent to such a cross­ing, no one was spot­ted car­ry­ing a flag.

“I guess I see the flags for kids,” ex­plained Sue Hutchin­son, af­ter cross­ing a quiet street in the cen­tral city, near a ju­nior school, two uni­ver­si­ties and a med­i­cal fa­cil­ity. “As an adult I feel I can han­dle [the cross­ing].”

Mr. Collins ar­gues that even un­used flags, flap­ping in the bucket, can serve as a vis­ual re­minder to drivers. But he’s sure they are used, point­ing to the fact they some­times end up bunched on one side of the road. And he’s con­vinced that they prompt drivers to yield to pedes­tri­ans.

For their own test, city staff crossed 300 times at a pair of in­ter­sec­tions. They found that drivers gave way 94 per cent of the time when flags were be­ing car­ried and 89 per cent of the time at cross­ings where there were no flags. Driver com­pli­ance was low­est, at 86 per cent, when flags were present but not car­ried.

The study sug­gests that the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion in Hal­i­fax, in which flags are present but are rarely used, is the most dan­ger­ous of the three sce­nar­ios.

“The sam­ple size was quite small,” Mr. Koutroulakis cau­tioned. “From a sta­tis­ti­cal per­spec­tive, you know, the re­sults in my view are not as solid as they could be.”

Staff also raised the con­cern that they had ob­served pedes­tri­ans ar­gu­ing about whether flag use was manda­tory, and were wor­ried that the pres­ence of the flags gave the pedes­tri­ans a false sense of se­cu­rity.

Cross­walk flags be­gan to ap­pear in the U.S. in the 1990s, with mixed re­sults. Dozens of smaller mu­nic­i­pal­i­ties use them, while some big­ger ci­ties have aban­doned them.

Seat­tle tested flags and con­cluded “there was not a con­sis­tent pat­tern of im­proved [driver] com­pli­ance ob­served.” A test in Berke­ley was stopped af­ter staff found it “did not ap­pear to have a sig­nif­i­cant ef­fect” on pedes­trian safety.

“I think that they do pro­vide some small mea­sure of safety, but I also feel that they make peo­ple feel safer and I think that’s also valu­able,” said Hal­i­fax deputy mayor Waye Ma­son, who ad­mits it be­ing po­lit­i­cally dif­fi­cult to turn down a re­quest for a flag

“You’re look­ing at, you know, par­ents or con­cerned se­niors or what­ever. It’s re­ally hard to say to them, no, you don’t get a cross­walk flag.”

Even sup­port­ers of the mea­sure ar­gue that roads still need to be re-de­signed to be more pedes­trian friendly and to get mo­torists to drive at safer speeds.

It’s a vi­sion that Hal­i­fax, which has a new road safety plan, hopes to move grad­u­ally to­ward.

In the mean­time, Mr. Collins ar­gues that his flags have a place.

But Gra­ham Larkin, the head of the safety ad­vo­cacy group Vi­sion Zero Canada says blame is still too of­ten and un­fairly at­trib­uted to pedes­tri­ans when ac­ci­dents oc­cur.

“It is ex­tremely un­fair to place the safety onus on the vul­ner­a­ble, who are af­ter all en­gaged in a per­fectly benign ac­tiv­ity,” Mr. Larkin said in a writ­ten ex­change.

“The state re­ally has no busi­ness train­ing vul­ner­a­ble [pedes­tri­ans] to pro­tect them­selves. To say that such train­ing ‘sends the wrong mes­sage’ is putting it far too mildly. That shift­ing of re­spon­si­bil­ity per­pet­u­ates in­jus­tice. Crit­ics are right to call it vic­tim-blam­ing.”


A young girl holds up a vi­brant com­mu­nity cross­walk flag to cross the street in Hal­i­fax on Oct. 27. The high-vis­i­bil­ity flags were in­stalled by a lo­cal vol­un­teer group.

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