Even the SFMTA is confused by those crosswalk countdown signals

No wonder everybody’s confused by those countdown clocks at crosswalks that alert pedestrians to how many seconds remain before the solid red “don’t walk” hand lights up. Even the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency can’t get it right.

We asked the agency’s spokesman, Paul Rose, to clarify matters after a spate of letters to the editor in The Chronicle debated whether pedestrians are allowed to enter the crosswalk throughout the countdown or not.

Rose told us in Sunday’s City Insider column that the countdown is “an awareness tool” for pedestrians and that they cannot be ticketed for entering the street as the countdown clock flashes, even as it approaches zero.

“They can start whenever they want,” Rose said.

Shockingly, just because a government official says something doesn’t mean it’s right.

Sure enough, several readers e-mailed to say Rose had it flat wrong and that pedestrians cannot legally start crossing after the countdown clock has started. They may only enter the crosswalk when the walking person is illuminated in white lights, but can finish crossing if they’ve already entered when the countdown begins.

Rose acknowledged his flub. “I passed on wrong information,” he said. “I’ll leave it at that.”

One city official who does know the in’s and out’s of crosswalk signals is Commander Mikail Ali of the San Francisco Police Department, who e-mailed to say pedestrians cannot enter the crosswalk after the countdown has begun — or risk a citation or being struck by a vehicle.

One thing isn’t so clear: whether countdown clocks work. Ali said some studies show they’re helpful for pedestrians, while others show they contribute to erratic behavior on the part of walkers such as trying to sprint across the street with two seconds left on the clock.

Pedestrians behaving erratically in San Francisco? There’s something we can probably all agree on…. (more)

We finally have something everyone agrees on. Lack of consistency does not make the streets any safer. It breeds confusion, which leads to erratic behavior.

There are state laws on the books which could be followed if we all agreed to abide by them and quit trying to create exceptions.

The SFMTA has avoided following state laws by setting up quasi-legal exceptions under the guise of pilot programs and now we see the results. Different driving patterns and changing lanes from one street to another has added to the confusion and the stress levels.

Elected officials should take note of this and restrain the SFMTA from any further deviations from state laws. That way we could all go back to following the same set of rules.

Next, we need to communicate more clearly with the public what the state rules are.

Traffic signals are designed to do more than start and stop traffic. They should give us the ability to predict the behavior of everyone else on the road. When no one knows the rules you have a lot of stressed people acting erractically. How do we get back to the point where everyone knows the rule?

We start by agreeing on what they are.

Let’s start by following the state laws and limit the number of “exceptions to the rules”.

  • Yellow lights should be timed so that a pedestrian crossing the street has enough time to reach the other side before the light turns red, not set for a couple of seconds to catch cars running red lights. 
  • Countdowns should be treated like yellow lights. Maybe the countdown color should be yellow instead of red and the hand should go away.
  • Everyone should stop at red lights, and stop signs.
  • Whoever is in the intersection first should have the right of way to pass through it regardless of how they got there. Civilized behavior is the safest approach.