Ottawa could eliminate red reverts at intersections
City councillors will soon debate whether to get rid of a red light technology that some say is dangerous for cyclists.
Red reverts, also called “revert reds,” pose a safety hazard to people on bikes, according to some councillors and cycling advocates.
Coun. Jeff Leiper is bringing a report to the city’s transportation committee next month aimed at putting an end to the practice.
“If you’re a pedestrian or you’re a driver you have some expectations about how a traffic light is going to behave. If you see that the traffic that’s crosswise gets an amber or a yellow light you have a really strong expectation that you’re about to get a green,” Leiper says.
“If an intersection detects that there is a cyclist at it that cyclist should get a green light no matter whether they’ve left the dots or not. The number of times there is a false detection of some sort has got to be minuscule in the grand scheme of however millions of vehicle movements we have in the city every year.”
What are red reverts?
A red revert occurs when a vehicle trips a sensor at an intersection, leading to a traffic light change.
Before the light changes, the sensor does a final check to ensure there’s still a car or bike on the sensor.
If there is, the light turns green. But if not, the light stays red and the crossing street returns to a green light after five seconds.
Where multi-use pathways intersect with busy city streets, those vehicles are most often bicycles. The danger comes in if cyclists start biking when the light in the opposing direction turns red, to maximize their time crossing the intersection.
“Should a person on a bike move off the sensor before the traffic light has turned green, a red revert will result in them ending up in the middle of the intersection while traffic in the crossing directions reverts to green, resulting in a safety hazard,” the report on Leiper’s motion says.
What is being proposed?
Leiper is proposing that multi-use pathway traffic signals hold the call for the light to change back to green, even if the bike moves off the sensor area. The adjustment would be made at signalized intersections that have a bike lane.
“While laws such as the Highway Traffic Act may expect street users to behave in a certain manner, street design should take into account observed behaviour, including human error - in this instance, by providing a buffer to ensure that people on bikes do not risk significant personal injury or even death because they moved off a sensor early and entered an intersection against the light,” the report says.
Eliminating red reverts would provide protection similar to all-way red lights at intersections, or timing signals at busy intersections that allow pedestrians to walk before vehicles get a green light.
The city announced in March that 192 intersections with sensors would be programmed with amber locks, which ensure the light stays green if the cyclist stays on the sensor until the end of the yellow light on the main street. Thirty-four intersections have this technology now, but Leiper’s report says the amber lock has not met residents’ expectations.
City officials opposed
City staff, including police and fire services, transit services and the public works department, are opposed to eliminating red reverts.
Ottawa Fire Services is concerned that the change would affect response times.
“Efficiencies in service delivery, realized through years of analysis and refinement, could be jeopardized,” they said in the report.
OC Transpo staff are concerned that some bus routes would have longer travel times, resulting in the potential for lower ridership and higher operating costs.
And city public works staff say the change would have a “significant impact’ on the city’s 1,000 intersections that work with detectors, including more instances of running red lights and jay walking, as well as delays and traffic congestion.
Leiper says the city needs to strike a balance.
“It keeps traffic flowing but the risk is that someone who doesn’t understand how the lights work is facing catastrophic injury or death,” says Leiper. “For the time savings that we’re talking about it’s not an appropriate balance to strike.”
Dave Robertson was crossing at an intersection along Carling Avenue late at night in early November. The light changed, but he moved off the sensor before the sensor’s ‘final check’. His expectation was the light would turn green; however, as he advanced through the intersection, the light never changed and the green light was returned to oncoming traffic.
“Some of us are aware of them and know where they exist, but this was at an intersection where I haven’t seen revert reds before,” says Robertson. “I didn’t really realize that traffic was going to be moving at me … I had a car running straight at me and didn’t expect that and it was scary.”
Robertson says the light has since been re-programmed and a sign has been installed to inform cyclist of how the system works, but adds his case was a perfect example of how people can be caught.
“I’d like the city to be sure that they focus on safety,” says Robertson. “If this is a type of signalization that’s going to potentially endanger lives, then I think they better review and consider removing these lights.”
Transportation committee will discuss the report at its Dec. 1 meeting.
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