Crossing the law

New crosswalk buttons and provincial Bill 7 combine to make criminals out of pedestrians and favour car traffic.

Seemingly small changes in city policy and provincial law have combined to make a very large difference in how people walk about town.

On the city side, when new crossing lights are installed at intersections, they are now programmed such that the pedestrian don't-walk/walk signal only changes if first activated by the pedestrian pushing a button.

On the provincial side is 2007's Bill 7, which amended the motor vehicle code. That bill is most famously known for its Clause 13, which criminalized Halifax's squeegee kids, but its Clause 6 affects far more people---that piece of the legislation states simply that "pedestrian traffic facing [a don't-walk] signal, either flashing or solid, shall not start to cross the roadway in the direction of the signal."

In many cases, the pedestrian arrives at an intersection with plenty of time to cross, but just after the traffic light has turned green; in order to get a "walk" signal, the pedestrian must wait an entire light cycle, but cars arriving after the pedestrian are free to proceed.

Many pedestrians cross anyway---with the green traffic light but against the don't-walk pedestrian light---which was perfectly legal before Bill 7 passed, but now violates the law.

In effect, the changes have taken the right-of-way away from pedestrians and given it to vehicular traffic instead. Further, many additional minutes are added to a pedestrian's commute.

"I wouldn't agree with that," says Ken Reashor. "When the pedestrian approaches they push it, and the next available light turns green."

Reashor is Halifax's one-man traffic authority and is the ultimate authority for all street- and traffic-related decisions in HRM. For example, it was Reashor's decision to start enforcing the winter parking ban and he vetoed an attempt to widen the sidewalks on Spring Garden Road.

Reashor explains that he is responsible for the change in city crosswalk policy, but that both the new push-button pedestrian light and the change in the provincial motor vehicle code were recommended by the Crosswalk Safety Task Force.

Reashor co-chaired the task force, which was created by mayor Peter Kelly and premier Rodney MacDonald after two girls were killed at crosswalks in Dartmouth.

That group had 11 members: five are traffic engineers; two are police officers; one is the former registrar of motor vehicles; one a member of the seniors' safe driving committee; one an injury prevention expert with the province and one an academic who specializes in decision making and risk-taking among children and people with learning disabilities.

There was not a pedestrian advocate on the task force devoted to pedestrian safety.

Reashor shrugs off complaints that the task force was weighted against pedestrians. "We're all pedestrians," he states.

"That's only a percentage of the time they have to wait," he says. "It depends on the randomness of your arrival. It depends on where you're going. You can actually cross the street in the opposite direction and depending on where you're heading---those options are available. Not everybody in every case is necessarily delayed.

"There's a balance between giving the right of way to pedestrians and cars," he adds. "The statistics are showing that delaying a motorist unnecessarily if there's no pedestrian---and what happens is if there's no pedestrian and the walk signal is up, then we cannot give the additional time to other movements, because the walk cycle requires a longer period of time. This all comes back to impatience of drivers, impatience of pedestrians. It's a balance of the two."

Evidently, most pedestrians either are unaware they're breaking the law, or don't care. Monday afternoon, at the new pedestrian crossing light at Trollope Street and Bell Road it took just 12 minutes for 10 different people, all adults, to break the law.

Illegal crossings are also a regular sight at the new pedestrian crossing light at Thistle Street and Victoria Road in Dartmouth, with many incidents of pedestrians and motorists flipping each other off and the like.

Motorists, for their part, don't have to push a button.

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