They’ve been tested in Washington, DC, Baltimore, New York, Boston, San Francisco, Las Vegas and Albany since the 1990s.

English: A pedestrian signal with countdown ti...

A pedestrian signal with countdown timer at a pedestrian crossing. This crossing is at the intersection of De Anza Boulevard and Lazaneo Drive in Cupertino. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Countdown timers at intersections are now being rolled out as standard traffic signage.

In 2009, the Federal Highway Administration issued an update to their Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD).

The 2009 edition of the MUTCD requires that all intersections that have pedestrian crosswalk signals, such as a man or a hand, that gives people more than 7 seconds to cross the street, have a countdown timer. 

There is reason to be cautious about expected benefits of the countdown timers, however. A recent Toronto study found that at the more than 2,000 countdown timers they’ve installed in that city collisions have increased by 26% and fatal accidents between cars and pedestrians have jumped 50%.

They think it’s because pedestrians, and sometimes, cars, rush into an intersection when they see there are only a few seconds left.

Meanwhile, Calgary, a city in Canada with countdown timers at 195 intersections, found that they are not causing any more injuries.

San Francisco found, in its 2006 study of its first nine intersections, that collisions with pedestrians were reduced by more than 50% and still dropped by 22% when they studied the subsequent rollout to 569 intersections, with a possible difference in the way timers are used relative to the light turning yellow from their Canadian counterparts.

And, studies report, pedestrians like them.

States vary about whether a pedestrian has to be out of the road before a car is allowed to proceed across the crosswalk, but in Virginia, you have to wait until the pedestrian is fully across. You can’t enter the intersection behind them while they are still in the street.

What’s in the future? The Federal Highway Administration is looking at a number of possibilities to improve pedestrian safety.

  • Automated pedestrian sensors at intersections to activate crosswalk signals without pushing a button
  • Longer walk signal times to be sure children and the elderly have time to cross
  • Exclusive pedestrian scrambles, stopping all cars while pedestrians cross
  • Pedestrian-activated no-right-turn-on-red signals
  • Overhead lighting of crosswalk when pedestrians are in it
  • Pedestrian detection sensors on shoulders of highways
  • Car bumper and hood redesign to avoid sharp edges and rigid surfaces
  • Car backover avoidance system
  • In-car pedestrian sensor system
  • Dashboard night-vision pedestrian detection system

I want the night-vision on my dashboard so I can see deer and people, preferably before they cross my path.


Carol Covin, Granny-Guru

Author, “Who Gets to Name Grandma? The Wisdom of Mothers and Grandmothers


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