The “Heads Up” crosswalk safety campaign is back.

Though the creators claim that it’s aimed at both drivers and pedestrians who are distracted by their phones, Heads Up sure sounds to me like it’s squarely focussed on pedestrians.

Maybe it’s because “heads up!” seems like absurdly little to ask of someone operating a motor vehicle. I mean, a driver’s head should always, at a minimum, be up. Whereas pedestrians can walk great stretches of sidewalk safely while staring at a book or a phone or the gum on the sidewalk, so that when they come to an intersection, it’s logical to think “heads up!”

Sure, it’s unstated, but it’s clear to me: the Heads Up message targets pedestrians.

Halifax staffers can say that this campaign is about reducing distracted driving and walking, and there are ads that include drivers. But the effective reality is it sounds like it’s about reducing distracted walking. And in the process, it’s adding to the misconception that pedestrians are the main cause of their own deaths and injuries.

It’s almost as if Halifax has made a conscious decision to ignore the data when designing their campaign. We have hard numbers on pedestrian safety. Check out these vehicle-pedestrian collision statistics tracked by the police.

Total reported collisions208169262208
% in crosswalk66.8%56.3%59.5%58.7%
SOTs issued to driversn/an/a10581
SOTs issued to pedestriansn/an/a166

There’s a striking difference in the numbers of tickets issued to pedestrians and drivers for the past two years (previous data was not reported). Curiously, the breakdown of SOTs issued to drivers and pedestrians showing this huge gap is NOT included in a similar table on Halifax’s crosswalk safety facts webpage.

This data is telling us something: We have a problem with drivers not following the rules.

And in some cases, it seems, it’s because drivers don’t even know the rules.

To help justify the Heads Up campaign, the city contracted Corporate Research Associates to give online surveys to 402 people about their perception of safety on our streets. For the most part, these public perception stats seem rather useless. The slight differences between pre-campaign and post-campaign surveys could be more than accounted for by the unknown margin of error in the online survey stats.

That said, the results of one question jump out from the pre-campaign survey. Straying from the “personal perceptions of safety” theme of the survey, one question was actually a knowledge test.

When asked, “As far as you know, where do pedestrians have the right of way?”, only 43 per cent of the people surveyed answered in an unmarked crosswalk.

A graph from the final report on a pre-campaign online survey of 402 Halifax residents, 63% of whom said they drive daily.
A graph from the final report on a pre-campaign online survey of 402 Halifax residents, 63 per cent of whom said they drive daily.

Unfortunately, the same question seems to have been dropped from the post-campaign survey. And since I haven’t seen any Heads Up ads aimed at clearing up the mystery around what constitutes a crosswalk, I’m guessing that ignorance still prevails on this topic.

Last week I attended an open house for Share the Road NS, a project of the Dalhousie Transportation Collaboratory (DalTRAC). In 2013, after researching more than 70 share-the-road campaigns across the world, and after rounds of community consultations across Nova Scotia, they came up with the Thumbs Up campaign.

Just of few of the decals created as part of the Thumbs Up campaign, encouraging people to make eye contact, check mirrors, give 1 metre clearance to bikes, and look twice.
Just of few of the decals created as part of the Thumbs Up campaign, encouraging people to make eye contact, check mirrors, give 1 metre clearance to bikes, and look twice.

The Thumbs Up campaign is “open source,” meaning materials are available across Nova Scotia and beyond, and are able to be customized. The region of Waterloo has adopted a version of Thumbs Up strictly geared towards drivers and cyclists getting along.

Thumbs Up is a positive, practical education campaign. It reminds us of some key points about how streets should legally function, and it encourages communication and friendliness among road users.

It’s a shame that Halifax, when presented with the opportunity to put some of their marketing budget behind Thumbs Up, opted for the more divisive, less helpful Heads Up instead.

Of course, education campaigns like Heads Up and Thumbs Up both seem a little lacklustre when compared to the public education components of New York City’s Vision Zero program.

Vision Zero began in Sweden in 1997, when the goal of zero deaths and serious injuries from traffic accidents became national policy. In New York City, pedestrian deaths have been reduced dramatically in the two years since it was adopted.

NYC Vision Zero ads focus on specific and common situations where people can get killed or injured. Not surprisingly, that means the focus is on driver behaviour far more than pedestrian.

A print ad from NYC's Vision Zero campaign, and a far cry from Heads Up!
A print ad from NYC’s Vision Zero campaign, and a far cry from Heads Up!

They’ve also produced gripping video ads:

YouTube video

But these ads are a drop in the bucket of what New York’s Vision Zero is about. Instead of just asking people to make fewer mistakes (because let’s face it, even the most egregious distracted driving isn’t meant to hurt someone) Vision Zero espouses the idea that we need to design and build streets to be safer for humans.

Here’s just a few of the things New York has done since 2013:

  • redesigned crosswalks and intersections for shorter cross times
  • reduced the city-wide speed limit from roughly 50 kph to 40 kph
  • increased enforcement for violations known to contribute to traffic fatalities (285 per cent more tickets for texting while driving)
  • removed corner parking spots for increased visibility at intersections
  • installed leading pedestrian interval (LPI) lights, so that pedestrians get a head start on vehicular traffic at intersections
  • installed speed cameras in school zones

Read more about the long list of initiatives in NYC’s year two report.

Meanwhile, in Nova Scotia:

Our provincial government is in the process of hiking pedestrian fines in an effort to “level the playing field between drivers and pedestrians.” (I mean really, how do you do that without putting all the pedestrians in cars, or getting all the drivers out of cars?)

Our municipal government is continuing with a campaign that perpetuates the incorrect idea that pedestrian behaviour is the biggest problems on our streets.

While other jurisdictions actually take a stab at saving lives, it seems Halifax and Nova Scotia are focussed on not offending the 78 per cent of Nova Scotians who say their primary transportation mode is driving.  Campaigns like Heads Up are a way that our bureaucrats and politicians can appear to be doing something about traffic deaths and injuries, while not stirring up the ire of the drivers out there who might feel threatened by a realistic campaign.

While it may be true that “Crosswalk safety is everyone’s duty,” it is not true that everyone is equally responsible for traffic deaths and injuries in Halifax.  And continuing to reinforce this false message will undoubtably end up costing more injuries and lives.

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  1. This is a great article. It’s really important to keep a close eye on the few people who want to target pedestrians with big fines and to make sure they are met with opposition and criticism where warranted. The issue is very clearly the trend to distracted and aggressive car driving. There are engineering solutions here and there but greater police enforcement is long overdue. Thanks for writing this Erica!

  2. ADDENDUM: (a) apologies for the TYOPS [sic.] above; and (b) I fully realise that Street Design is a major factor in Street Safety. In THAT case HRM receives a failing grade in hundreds of pedestrian-dense spots in the city where simple, understandable, and enforceable solutions COULD be implemented but are NOT. The reasons are numerous but ALL total cop-outs. «Development» (i.e.: MONEY INTERESTS) and fuzzy-headed Civil Engineering are responsible for far too many of these avoidable messes. Then, of course, there’s the simple fact that Council is too pre-occupied with being «Entitled to their Egregious Entitlements» to pay attention to non-starters like Safe Streets.

  3. With all respect to the «traumatised» pedestrians ranting above, I remain UNconvinced that drivers are the sole source of Street CARnage [ptp!!!] as they would have everyone believe. Whlle there is undeniably a Driver Cohort which is entitlemet-obsessed and sometimes criminally negligent of their duties as drivers, there is a much larger percentage of ruuners and joggers, «mobility VEHICLE» operators and even «walkers» who behave as though they have been lobotomised. «Due Care and Caution» is replaced in their minds by the mistaken and dangerous attitude: «I OWN THE STREETS, and you ursurper drivers get outta my way!». Their totally care-LESS behaviours are evident everywhere, every day in HRM. In wish I were a little more tech-savvy to the point where I could PHOTOGRAPH the insane, distractive get-ups and death-wish behaviours of the above-mentioned non-drivers I encounter on a daily basis. They’d make their vilified drivers look like über-cautious saints!

  4. While I appreciate the coverage I disagree with the premise of the article.

    In 2015 there were 1,793 tickets to drivers using cell phones in HRM while driving as well as 4,088 speeding tickets. As the article points out more drivers are (legally) responsible, i.e. issued SOTs than pedestrians. However I interpret the message as being directed to all – driver and pedestrian, not either/or as evidenced by the blindfolded driver in the ad. Drivers, as well as pedestrians are distracted and need to hear the message.

    I find this campaign considerably more positive and effective than the previous Distractions Kills, which many found too graphic.

    That said I don’t believe campaigns such as this (or any other) are the most effective way to change behaviour. Enforcement and education are. From 2012 to 2015 New York INCREASED the number of tickets issued to drivers for not yielding to pedestrians by 241% (from 10,698 to 39,853) while during the same period HRM has reduced the number of tickets (SOTs) by 26% (from 164 to 122). You would think HRM (HRP and RCMP) police do not believe there is an issue. If you reported next week, and the week after that, and the week after that that 300 pedestrians had been ticketed for crossing on the don’t walk light as well as 300 drivers for not yielding in a crosswalk I expect behaviour would change.

    As pointed out many drivers (and pedestrians) do not understand unmarked crosswalks and the right of way at them. Many pedestrians do not understand countdown timers and don’t walk lights (if you are not already in the crosswalk you can not legally enter once the red timer/hand is visible). The Heads Up Halifax campaign is awareness, not education. Our education efforts have been essentially non-existent. While there is certainly no harm in doing do so I expect info on the cities web-page is for the most part not accessed. Really how many people wake up in the morning, race to their computers/phones with the goal of searching the Halifax crosswalk safety facts webpage? A different approach is needed.

    Has HRM and HRM police failed in sufficiently addressing pedestrian and crosswalk safety? I believe they have, but not through this campaign. Rather through not implementing a number of the Council approved recommendations of the Crosswalk Safety Advisory Committee, by not be proactive in enforcing violations of the MVA, and by not developing an effective education (rather than simply awareness) campaign.

    Norm Collins
    Crosswalk safety advocate and Board member of the Crosswalk Safety Society of Nova Scotia

  5. Excellent article, Erica:

    As both a walker and runner, as well as being a senior, I have deliberately stopped both of those activities at some of the most dangerous intersections in the far North end, particularly during the morning & evening commutes. The two worst are Kaye & Gottigen and *eek* Almon & Gottingen. If I get hit, there is a good chance I will lose my mobility going forward, a risk I am no longer willing to take.

  6. I walk every day despite being fearful. I’ve responded to articles, i’ve written a long letter to Halifax Police begging for help . I know it’s not everybody who is driving dangerously. There are just enough people out there who seem almost resentful that I should interrupt their important trips by slowing down and actually noticing that travel doesn’t just include cars. It reminds me of the frequent comment from car drivers who run into motorcyclists and bicyclists: “I didn’t see him.” They are like bullies, leaving me and people like me afraid, jumping through hoops to do whatever gets us across the streets without being run over.

    Two of my recent bad experiences. An older man in an expensive car rolled down his window and screamed at me. What did I do? Well, I and my young friend and her twins in a stroller were attempting to cross Lacewood by Sobey’s. We were off the sidewalk but stopped because the car in front of the angry man drove through the street right in front of us. So, then the light turned into the hand with the countdown. My understanding is that this is for walkers already crossing. This screaming man obviously didn’t think that. And the man who crossed in front of us had the look on his face that I’ve now seen quite often: Confusion! He didn’t look mean, like the one still on Lacewood wanting to also cross in front of us.

    But the screaming man? I screamed back and I’m glad I did. I also screamed when crossing Lacewood by a side street across from the new bus terminal, towards the terminal. The car turning into my Green Light wasn’t stopping so I started waving to get their attention. While I was doing this and then continuing on, a pick-up truck with a plough came out of the terminal lot and crossed very quickly behind me. I had to run (I’m 73 years old) to ensure it was behind me–the plough was looming close to me, instead of on top of me. I came close to being ploughed off that street and probably killed.

    So, that’s two stories.

    I also have stories of the people who are not hell bent on their very important pursuits. To those, I give a friendly wave. I’m so beholding now to reasonable drivers that I feel I look pitiful.

    I sit and think if there is any way I can get to the library, get to the stores, meet people for coffee, without crossing a street. It’s not possible. The cars have the advantage. Why is anybody arguing this point? When you combine that with a very bad attitude in a growing number of drivers, it’s just awful.

    Cross walks? Cross fingers.

    1. Well said. If I might add, I’ve countless incidents at the newest Citadel roundabout.

      I have lost count of drivers speeding through the roundabout purposefully ignorant of any pedestrian in the crosswalk.

      How dare anyone force them to slow down in their drives to the suburbs and their appointments at Costco.

      1. The Citadel Roundabout is, if I may say, a complete clusterf@#$. Even normally attentive drivers get too distracted trying to figure out if they’re in the right lane or not to properly stay alert for pedestrians and cyclists. But it’s also common for drivers to accelerate heading into it (instead of slowing down to accommodate it) when they see (or rather, think) they have a clear path through. Is that why there’s a giant, vision-obstructing mound in the middle, to get people to slow down?

        (BTW, for kicks, visit the Citadel roundabout on Google streetview, it’s a weird hodgepodge of images from before its construction and during its construction. Very bizarre.)

        1. MOST of these faddish «roundabouts» are so ridiculously «tight» that it’s impossible to process all the conflicting information needed to navigate them at any pace faster than that of a SNAIL! THEN, the engineering geniuses insert DOUBLE LANES to encourage kamikazes to cut you off on left and right for not maintaining the breakneck speed at which they approached an «obstrucction» to their «entitledx progress.

          It would be interesting to see a comparison of collision rates at these intersections pre- and post-roundabout. Also the backups at peak traffic times. SOMETIMES these are a grerat boon. MOST of the time they turn a minor annoyance into a major snafu.

          1. That roundabouts improve safety and reduce pollution is well known to anyone who studies highway issues. They are widely used in Europe, but they represent a change in conservative Nova Scotia, and you know how we feel about change. Isn’t it long past time to stop treating every reasonable safety tip for pedestrians as an unwarranted assault on their “rights?”

      2. I’ve found it much safer feeling than the previous messy intersection. It forces cars to slow down and drivers to think about their actions. I think the stats will bear out that they safer overall.

  7. Make no mistake the marketing budget for HRM is being used to help promote the rebranding of H/\LIF/\X and to enrich the pockets of private sector PR firms.

    Public safety and education isn’t even on the list for the bureaucrats in charge except as a convenient dodge for its true goals.

    Someone should enquire how much the campaign cost the taxpayers. That would be fun.

    1. Halifax Police do have a street safety site/blog which I can’t find now…on Facebook, I think. Something like “Did You Know?” and then a clear description and picture of a specific traffic rule.

  8. My personal experience in Halifax definitely agrees with drivers thoughts on unmarked crosswalks. Speed traps seem to be a regular thing for the police so I don’t know why they couldn’t setup and unmarked crosswalk trap every now and again. I actually think the $697 ticket to a driver in that case is excessive too. I would rather see a small fine and education. Cops generally aren’t going to write a $697 ticket unless someone got hit. But speeding tickets are issued all the time, not just when they result in an accident.