Crosswalk countdown signals are an increasingly common tool to inform pedestrians precisely how much time they have to cross the street. The idea behind these signals is that pedestrians are less likely to cross during the flashing “Don’t Walk” phase if they know there are only a few seconds left before the light turns red. In practice, however, these signals can be confusing—if ten seconds remain and I know I can cross in that time, is it legal for me to do so?
The answer is no. In California, pedestrians may only cross the street during the “walk” phase and must finish crossing during the countdown signal; they may not begin crossing the street when the countdown is flashing (this is considered jaywalking). The intention of this law is to promote safety and allow vehicles a chance to turn during this phase. However, many people do not understand the law—some studies have actually shown that these signals give pedestrians a mistaken impression that it’s acceptable to cross during the countdown signal. Even the spokesman for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) was confused by its meaning.
Police enforcement of countdown signals is becoming increasingly more common: San Francisco and Los Angeles have had numerous recent stings, with tickets of up to $250. These stings have been heavily criticized because they specifically target pedestrians with punitive fines despite the fact that drivers are at fault in nearly two-thirds of collisions and pose a greater risk to the safety of others. In a perfect world, pedestrians would follow the law, but does it make sense to use limited resources to target pedestrians while drivers freely run yellow lights, turn into active crosswalks, or fail to yield to pedestrians? And how does punishing pedestrians contribute to broader goals of creating more walkable cities?
Policy questions aside, the best way to avoid a ticket and minimize risk of injury is to avoid crossing the street when the countdown signal flashes. It might be inconvenient, but saving $250 (or your life) is worth it!