Beg Button for Death

Get ready to be upset. You may not want to see these pic or watch the video. Not suitable for children or the squeamish.

On Friday afternoon last week, a pedestrian was killed at the intersection of Rochester and Somerset Street.

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(photo above by  Chris Roussakis, Postmedia)

Here is a police reconstruction on Tuesday. You may assume what you wish, but you don’t know how accurate this is. It is a reconstruction, not a video clip of the actual event. Yes, it fosters speculation in amateurs like us.

The vehicle in the reconstruction is the actual one involved in “the accident”. Here it is at the intersection:

pic 1

approaching the crosswalk …

pic 2

crossing the crosswalk. Somewhere in the journey a pedestrian was hit and killed.

pic 3

The crosswalk paint is in good condition, as they were repainted by the city on Thursday evening – Friday morning, hours before the collision.

Got the pictures? Still OK? The photos mask the sense of movement, speed, and sound.

Here’s the movie of the police reconstruction on Tuesday morning as witnessed by a neighbour. It may upset you:

I do not want to leap to any conclusion as to the cause of the collision, but one thing sure stands out to me.

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At SOME intersections along Somerset Street, pedestrians get an advanced walk light, to allow them into the intersection first, so they can be seen.

At SOME intersections along Somerset Street, pedestrians get a walk light simultaneous to cars getting a green light. Cars also get to turn right on red.

At SOME intersections along Somerset Street, pedestrians only get a walk light if they push the button to request one. A beg button, in the jargon.

At SOME intersections along Somerset Street, it is necessary to beg to cross in one direction but not the other direction.

At SOME intersections, it is necessary to beg at certain times of the day, but not at other times of the day.

At SOME intersections, a beg button only works on one crosswalk, so if you take advantage of a walk light in the other direction to cross in two stages (say, one east, one south) you may not get a walk light even though you pushed the beg button on the “wrong side” of the street.

At some intersections, the lights go from green to yellow to red and then in about one second go back to green again. God help if you are cyclist or a pedestrian that started out on the green light.

Confused? You bet. I can only remember the applicable rules for small number of intersection segments, all the rest are unlearned and must be explored anew each crossing. And it is annoying to walk some distance to push the beg button only to discover it wasn’t necessary to push it, the walk light was automatic.

And if you are one second too late because you have a red walk light but a green car light, well tough, you gotta wait forever while the whole intersection cycles through all other movements.

Why is it so complicated?

Does it lead to pedestrian error or frustration that then causes potentially dangerous movements, such as walking without the walk light when one realizes it won’t be coming on and the wait will seem interminable to get the next one?

Do motorists “jump” their green light when they see the advanced walk signal come on? Do motorists turning right on a red ever swivel their head from looking left 110 degrees to look right 140 degrees to check if a pedestrian or cyclist has approached the intersection?

Does anyone care?

The simplest and easiest and cheapest solution to work toward zero pedestrian deaths and reduced injuries is to have the walk light operate on EVERY green light signal phase. This would also calm traffic.

A second, simple and fairly cheap safety improvement might be to prohibit right turns on red at all urban intersections within the greenbelt. This could be a prohibition sign or (much cheaper) a red arrow replacing the red ball light in the signal head.

Or maybe pedestrians just aren’t worth the cost and inconvenience.

Our city runs on complaints. No complaints, no fix. Join your community association. Email your councillor or the mayor.

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thanks to CD for the photos and video. Now, watch the video again and see how unsafe the intersection design is.

29 thoughts on “Beg Button for Death

  1. Great, however many side street intersections (Beechwood) NEVER cycle unless there is car on sensor OR beg button pushed. At others, (Hunt Club/Bridle Path/Dazé) peds get some extra 15 seconds to cross 8 lanes of HC after beg.

  2. Thanks for addressing this. I live near this particular ‘beg button of death’. It’s a dangerous and confusing light… and it shouldn’t be. Should default to pedestrians regardless of the button.

  3. i agree with the sentiment of this article and you’ve expressed many of the feeling i have about this incident with more diplomacy than i could ever muster. Thank you Eric.

    i have to say that i disagree that this “city runs on complaints”. That’s what they’d have you believe, but the truth of the matter is the City runs on prescriptive systems. Their prescription for reciprocity in these systems is a disgraceful and humiliating complaint process. And while the City will insist that complaints are the only method of feedback that the City will acknowledge there are other methods that go unacknowledged and i want to encourage them.

    Citizens freely modify roadways, transit stops, construction sites and signage everyday to make the environment safer and less stressful for everyone. The City rarely notices these advancements but we shouldn’t pretend they aren’t real just because the City doesn’t see them.

    The City wants you to complain because they can manage that.

    Nowadays i ask unanswerable questions instead of complaining as a means to inform myself and to resist the City’s prescription. i don’t receive many answers or much courtesy by asking questions, but i do learn where to direct my action where the City won’t notice it.

  4. Somerset Street is a traffic nightmare during the day. There is on street parking, along with intersections for side streets, laneways and parking lots all in a tight area. Meanwhile, pedestrians, cyclists, skate boarders, roller bladers, city buses, passenger vehicles, delivery trucks are all competing for time and space. It is not like anyone can get anywhere quickly, so conforming crosswalk protocols (which likely involves programming at the central office) and adding a few seconds to the pedestrian crosswalk cycles will have a far greater impact on safety for all concerned, while not materially impacting the already poor vehicular traffic flow.

  5. OK, we see in the video that the truck would have been able to stop on the zebra-painted crosswalk, if it had started from stop at the intersection and the paint had been several days (and, presumably several thousand cars) old. Maybe they need to re-paint the lines again and do their test with paint that is less than 18 hours old.

    Are they sure the person was in the crosswalk when hit? That first photo shows the victim down closer to the bench. The position at impact would influence how much speed the vehicle could have attained and where braking started. It is likely the angle of the photos, but I don’t see any braking marks on the road.

    There has been quite a movement to get speed limits reduced because ‘a vehicle travelling at 40 kph is less deadly than one at 60 kph.’ Although that is true, I suspect that the truck in this case was travelling at a sloww-ish speed since it had had a relatively short, curved acceleration path. Based also on what appears to be limited damage to the truck’s front-right corner, it looks to me as if this was not a high-speed collision; just proving that cars hitting pedestrians can be deadly at almost any speed.

    1. Yes the positioning of both the truck and the body suggest that the pedestrian may not have been exactly on the cross walk. I would need to know more about velocities and how they affect throw distance to make a better guess. The truck is huge though, so accelerating through the left turn (which PLENTY of vehicles do at this intersection) could have been enough to knock and throw the man a meter or so. I still can’t fathom how, even in such an elevated truck, the driver did not see the deceased, who was 6 feet tall. Or vice versa for that matter.

  6. Thank you for writing on this topic. I have long held that the use of beg buttons in the downtown area is so inconsistent as to make them a harzard. After the death of Brian Thompson on Friday, my irritation has intensfied to distress.
    I would dearly love to see the modeling that shows how these momentary delays at certain traffic signals create speed efficiencies. Particularly in the case of Rochester and Somerset, which is flanked by two very controlled intersections at Booth and Preston.
    If there is a green signal for vehicles, there should AUTOMATICALLY be a pedestrian crossing signal, no begging, no button pressing. To have otherwise breaks an urban convenant, and frankly puts liability onto the City. Is that really worth these microseconds of vehicular efficiency?

    1. A. Bell, i am forwarding your request for the traffic signal model to Catherine McKenney. She doesn’t respond to my questions anymore so it may help our chances if you ask her for the information also.

      1. From the Councillor’s office: I read your Beg Button blog post today and wanted to let you know that our office has been following up with Transportation Dept. staff on this tragic pedestrian fatality. We have asked for safety improvements at this intersection and Councillor McKenney plans to have a meeting with residents and the DCA when she returns from holidays. I’ll be in touch again as soon as she’s back in the office.

        1. Congratulations Eric! i didn’t realize you got a gig as a receptionist in the Councillor’s office. Amazing!!! Thanks so much for following up with me promptly about this. If you hadn’t i wouldn’t know a thing since no one else from the City has responded to me.

          Or perhaps you didn’t get the gig, but you do get priority treatment because you are classified as Media instead of a worthless citizen.

          Regardless, now i am informed, so thanks!

  7. Why don’t all of us just forward this post with a little prefacing note? Just click on email below. I contacted Katherine McKenny about the beg buttons at Albert and Preston and she made sure they were on 24/7. I imagine Jeff Lieper would be sympathetic as well. All of them should be on 24/7. In the winter I often have to climb a snow bank to press a beg button but I still do it. A vehicle weighs tons vs my 135 ibs.

    I don’t think prohibiting right turns on red lights would work unless it was province wide. Too confusing for non residents of Ottawa. Even Quebec permits right turns on red. I’m not sure about the rest of the provinces.

  8. While having consistency in pedestrian push buttons is probably a good thing I am not sure if it would have made much of a difference in this case. Large pickup trucks where the driver is high off the ground have limited close visibility and so an inattentive driver is less aware of pedestrians at street level close to the truck.

    Unfortunately our street system is designed mainly for car traffic and so both pedestrians and cyclists need to be aware of where all cars and trucks are on the road and do not assume that they will stop at stop lights and stop signs

    While cycling on Somerset I had the experience of almost being “doored” by the same driver twice on the same trip ( he parked in one spot then moved his car to another spot). Some drivers simply are inattentive

  9. When i sent the video to Eric, i should have also mentioned that the hard-accelleration-left-turn movement wasn’t the only one that Ottawa Police Services were simulating. They also backed the truck up one block away from Somerset, floored it to get as much speed as possible, and then locked up the brakes in the middle of the insertion with no turn. i saw them repeat both movements several times and they may have performed additional movements that i didn’t witness.

    it is possible that the collision investigators were collecting samples of the stopping distance of the truck at different speeds and situations so that they can compare it to their pedestrian throw distance calculations derived from the scene map they took on Friday.

    Pedestrian throw distance calculations are a prized component of the Ontario collision investigation system. There is a dedicated box on the form where investigators can plug in their measurements and come to “reasonable” conclusion about the speed of a vehicle at the time of the collision.

    There isn’t a box on the form for the condition of beg buttons of course. And accordingly, they aren’t of interest to the investigation.

    There is a box to check for unidentified victims though. Its purpose is to remind the investigator to ask the Public for help when they speak to the Media. They probably don’t want help with the sort of things we’re discussing here. They just wanted to know that his name was Brian Thompson.

  10. Well with this post you hit an issue that we have all thought about and occasionally cursed. 1.There should be no turns on red. Even if drivers want to, the pedestrian stream has gotten so intense in inner city intersections that turning is an unneeded complication. 2. The vehicle as someone pointed out is partly to blame. I cannot reflect on the driver, but many that drive such vehicles really do not need them but have them for the thrill of towering over Smart cars and Fiats. The comment on the vehicle is important, as visibility is paramount. The comment on the left right head movement by the driver is also an issues. all that to say that perhaps we would be better off with NO right turns on red. (Oh, by the way will self-drive vehicles be able to handle this?)

    1. Yes, self-driving vehicles will absolutely be able to handle this. They have multiple cameras, and other instruments, that are always being given full “attention”. They’ve already proven themselves safer than human drivers in every circumstance that’s come up.

      1. Indeed jkshapiro, who gives a fuck about poor people who walk? Lets all keep our minds focused on selfish techno fixes. Fuck people who walk.

      2. Except, maybe self driving cars are not yet prepared to accommodate people in emotional distress. But i suppose the street is no place for emotion so people in distress can fuck off and die.

  11. It’s encouraging to see the police taking such an approach to investigating the collision by collecting whatever data it is they are collecting.

    For what it’s worth, I wrote a detailed explanation* of how pedestrian buttons work in Ottawa on my blog a couple years back, plus a follow-up entry linked at the end: http://centretown.blogspot.ca/2012/05/peds-on-weds-no-ifs-ands-or-buttons.html

    A related topic is on yellow dots for cyclists: http://centretown.blogspot.ca/2013/07/yellow-dots-are-like-loopy-buttons-for.html

    (*Note: “explanation” does not mean defence of the status quo!)

  12. At SOME intersections, a beg button doesn’t work at all.

    You left this one out of the list.

    Re the position of the struck pedestrian.
    This is a big heavy truck with a big heavy engine capable of quick acceleration. This amount of mass striking a much lighter pedestrian will propel the pedestrian down the street at the speed of the truck at the moment of the strike. This is basic physics.

    Re the minimal bumper damage
    This is one of those built tough construction site trucks. That bumper is likely 1/8 chromed steel plate. To put any degree of dent in that bumper indicates the collision was at high speed. This was not a “making slow left turn” event. It was more likely a jackrabbit start with continual acceleration right up until the recognition “Was that a human being that went flying down the road? Huh?”

    The best solution to all of this is not more sometimes working traffic light gizmos that are unable to survive either an Ottawa winter or an Ottawa summer. The solution is a criminal code offense called “Vehicular Manslaughter.” You drive a vehicle and you kill a pedestrian, or cyclist, then you are going to spend time in the slammer. End of story.

    The real problem is that the present system is biased in favour of the vehicle driver. Somebody gets killed and it is seen as being the victims fault. This needs to change to “You hit somebody with 2 tons of steel and rubber and you are automatically at fault until you prove otherwise.”

    1. Hi fif- I like your post. I saw a very similar black truck go by while I was waiting for the bus at Somerset and Preston. It was scary. Who needs their truck jacked up that high with monster tires? I’m not 6 feet tall but even if I was I couldn’t see over the hood of the truck.

    2. fjf, i share your frustration with the Ontario Traffic Act, but i am not convinced that legal reforms are a solution to the situation we all face.

      When “you hit somebody with 2 tons of steel and rubber and you are automatically at fault until you prove otherwise” then you may have a lot of motivation to flee because your presence at the scene, and your vehicle are usually the most convincing evidence available, especially when the victim cannot speak for themselves. If you decide to flee after crushing someone with an automobile it is very unlikely that the Police will ever find you. Most hit and run incidents are never solved and many are not even investigated because the Police and Courts have decided they aren’t worth the expense.

      i personally feel that this situation requires urgency. Reforming the practices of the City, the Police, the Courts and the Law will take decades. My patience with them is already exhausted and i have no optimism left for hope so i cannot help with that.

      While it is humiliating and terrifying to walk through an intersection slowly while drivers threaten you with their weapons it is the only thing i know i can do to slow the flow of motorized traffic.

      1. CD, it has been my observation that when two hazards meet in the same space and time, the result is often a tragedy. Purposely walking slowly to slow down the traffic flow creates a hazard. Now all it takes is a driver to not be paying as close attention as he/she should (i.e. another hazard) and …

        1. i understand your point Ron, but i know that i am worthless and the vehicle is likely insured so there won’t be much of a loss if tragedy does strike.

  13. Brian Thompson and Ursula Franklin died on the same day. Two great souls who led their lives putting one foot in front of the other.

    During a cold week in 1989, Ms. Franklin delivered a lecture titled: The Real World of Technology. In part 3 of the lecture she speaks about traffic policy with a distinct and refreshing perspective. Here is a link to the recording:

    https://pinkturtle.space/The%20Real%20World%20of%20Technology%20%28Part%203%29.mp3

    The traffic policy discussion begins at the 48 minute mark.

  14. Somewhere I read that the front bumper must not be higher than the centre of the wheel. If that’s true, that truck should not be on the road. Funny, police never seem bothered by that. As for the crosswalk inconsistencies, you didn’t say anything about time. If you’re crossing Carling at Broadview, where there are several schools, you get about 7 seconds, but other places you might get 30 seconds or more. There seems to be no logic at all there.

  15. If this ped was hit by a left turning vehicle why are so many people up in arms with right turns at red lights? Next thing we’ll all be wearing helmets and oven mitts whenever we leave the house!

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