‘Point Your Way to Safety’: The complicated history of crosswalks in Ontario 

In the mid-1950s, growing frustration over careless drivers and an increasing number of pedestrian fatalities led to a controversial innovation: pedestrian crosswalks
By Jamie Bradburn - Published on Dec 17, 2019
Crosswalk at Argyle Street and Ossington Avenue, in Toronto, pictured on October 23, 1958. (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 200, Series 372, Subseries 100, Item 750)



“The man on foot should have as much right to live, breathe and get home for supper on time as the motorist. Yet the latter, encased in his steel, super-double-distilled-horsepower vehicle (with tail fins) is by definition much mightier than the pedestrian and, therefore, he wins the right of way 90 percent of the time. This is more than unfair and annoying: it is dangerous because the pedestrian is induced to adopt the habit of a daredevil in order to get anywhere … Since safety and civility are not forthcoming voluntarily, the law will have to impose them.” — editorial, Toronto Daily Star, September 12, 1957

Up through the mid-1950s, provincial laws offered little protection for pedestrians and their right-of-way to cross intersections. In the decade following the Second World War, municipal police forces campaigned against jaywalking, while the province frequently rejected municipal requests for pro-pedestrian signage.

Sam Cass wanted to fix this. A traffic engineer who became Metro Toronto’s roads and traffic commissioner in 1954, he worked on a test project for a marked crosswalk that was introduced in February 1956 at the intersection of Rolph Road and Southvale Drive, in Leaside (then an independent town within Metro Toronto). Designed to help students, the crossing was marked with “zebra stripes” —similar to those used in England at the time — and a “School Crossing Stop When Occupied” sign. Driving through the crosswalk while it was occupied earned a motorist a maximum fine of $10. Cass warned, though, that the new system was no substitute for knowing basic safety rules.

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After the Leaside test proved successful, Metro Toronto officials opened discussions with the provincial government about implementing more crosswalks throughout Ontario, writing their use and rules into the Highway Traffic Act. At the time, there were no penalties for pedestrians who crossed against red lights — or pretty much anywhere, as long as they didn’t impede traffic. “There’s a widely held police opinion,” Globe and Mail city columnist Ron Haggart observed in 1957, “that it’s almost impossible to prove that a pedestrian has impeded automobiles unless [they’re] hit by one.”

On September 15, 1958, the first 200 signed crosswalks debuted across Metro Toronto. They consisted of white stripes painted on the road and a black and white “Pedestrian X” sign, similar to those still in use. There were no advance-warning signs and no lighting. When a pedestrian entered the crosswalk, vehicles were expected to stop. The new system was publicized through a $15,000 education program that included newspaper ads and cards given to schoolchildren.

“We intend to protect pedestrians despite themselves,” Cass told the press. 

On day one, a Telegram reporter stood for half an hour at a crosswalk on Queen Street East and saw 33 motorists and two streetcars ignore crossing pedestrians. Day two, which was declared Pedestrian Safety Day, saw the first fatality, when a five-year-old was struck near her school in York Township. Politicians who had reservations about the crosswalks quickly demanded an end to the program. Metro Toronto chairman Frederick Gardiner believed that the crossings blended into the “forest of signs” clogging Metro’s roads. He ordered that no more signs be put up; Toronto mayor Nathan Phillips suggested that existing ones be papered up. The press felt that the signs were inadequate, as motorists were given no notice that they were coming to a crosswalk. Metro police and traffic officials held an emergency meeting: they saved the program and recommended the immediate installation of yellow advance-warning signs in cases where motorists had less than 300 feet (91 metres) to see the crosswalk.

Cass saw little value in making radical, on-the-fly improvements to the crosswalks, arguing that they were merely a traffic-control device — not a magical guarantee for safe crossings. He believed that winter snow cover made more road markings useless. “Motorists don’t need ding dongs, flashers, or fireworks,” he told the Telegram, “but they do need a sense of responsibility.” Other traffic officials rejected calls for zebra crossings and special markings, saying that motorists would be confused if they encountered different approaches in different municipalities.

On September 23, Metro council voted 15-2 to improve crosswalk visibility through measures such as painting a large X ahead of the crossing, installing advance-warning signs near schools and areas with poor visibility, and prohibiting vehicles from parking or stopping within 30 feet of a crossing. The two opposing votes came from Toronto city councillors who wanted pedestrian-activated traffic lights (which Cass claimed would increase accidents by 100 per cent).

The following month, council approved the installation of overhead yellow floodlights. Cass felt that they would cost too much, impede traffic flow, and give pedestrians a false sense of security. Gardiner still thought the program was being implemented too quickly — and without sufficient study. Leaside mayor Charles Hiscott refused to install the lights, because he believed they would temporarily blind motorists (his town chose diamond-shaped yellow lights).

The next stage in Toronto’s crosswalk evolution came during Metro’s safety week in June 1959, when Gardiner introduced the “Point Your Way to Safety” campaign. The kickoff had a ghoulish touch: 81 people representing 1958’s traffic fatalities donned black shrouds and marched around Gardiner as a funeral dirge played. More than 1 million leaflets with instructions on how to cross safely were handed out across Metro. Signs were placed at crosswalks urging people to point their finger while crossing.

Early statistics supported the crosswalk program. Over the first two months of operation, in 1958, traffic accidents fell by 24 per cent across Metro, though they remained high in rapidly suburbanizing areas, such as Scarborough. After the first year, pedestrian fatalities were down 12 per cent; injuries, 20 per cent.

The province took notice. Transport minister John Yaremko considered using Metro’s system as the basis for a plan that would be available to all Ontario municipalities. “I think crosswalks are the greatest pedestrian safety measure since construction of sidewalks began,” Yaremko told the Globe in December 1959. After Yaremko endorsed the program in September 1959, traffic officials in such cities as Ottawa requested crosswalk funding in upcoming municipal budgets. The province permitted the installation of large warning signs about the crosswalk program on major entrance routes into Metro Toronto.

Hamilton questioned the province’s preference for the Metro system. City traffic director W.E. Ewens believed that his proposed system — based on ones in place in parts of Western Canada and the United States that gave pedestrians right-of-way at every intersection — was superior. Signs and markings, he said, distracted drivers, forcing them to take their eyes off the road, and road markings were of no help in bad weather. Ewens angered Toronto officials when he claimed that, after several deaths following the introduction of crosswalks, an unnamed official had told him, “So what? We’re getting $1 million worth of publicity free.” He felt, he said, that “they were buying publicity with human lives.”

Although Hamilton mayor Lloyd Jackson and police chief Leonard Lawrence supported the Metro system, Ewens had the backing of Hamilton city council. Several delegations visited Queen’s Park between 1960 and 1962 in hopes of convincing the province to rethink its position or to let Hamilton go it alone. “We say it’s either our system or none,” Hamilton city councillor and pedestrian subcommittee chair John Munro told the Globe. Pedestrians interviewed by the Hamilton Spectator didn’t care which system was adopted, as long as they had some form of protection.

Back in Metro Toronto, modifications continued. A test conducted at a downtown crosswalk in July 1960 saw pedestrians carry red flags instead of pointing, saving self-conscious adults the embarrassment of sticking out their fingers. One person told the Globe that the flags were “the most ridiculous thing I ever saw.” According to Cass, the pilot ended because they couldn’t maintain the flag supply. (The flag idea did reappear from time to time: one deputant during a 1966 hearing noted that they were used in Japan.) Metro’s traffic bylaw was updated in November 1961 — it now included “No Passing” signs in advance of crosswalks and banned vehicles (including streetcars) from passing within 100 feet of the crossing. The province added weight to these changes by slapping violators with three demerit points.

Hamilton’s hopes were defeated on May 31, 1962, when transport minister Leslie Rowntree announced that Metro’s system would become the provincial standard. He believed that Hamilton’s would be too difficult to enforce properly. At least 17 other municipalities used the Metro system and had seen positive results; for example, Barrie had not experienced any pedestrian fatalities since adopting crosswalks three years earlier. In Metro, the fatality rate had declined 15 per cent. Some Hamilton officials remained bitter, but the issue faded away.

One demand that still hadn’t been satisfied was proper lighting. In 1963, police proposed that seniors tie a white handkerchief around their arm to improve their visibility at night. By spring 1966, the public, politicians, and coroner’s juries had all called for the installation of flashing lights at Metro’s crosswalks. Cass resisted the idea, claiming that numerous communities were getting by just fine without them, that they were distracting, and that they’d cost $500,000 to install. Despite Cass’s objections, four sign-and-light combinations were tested out that year; illuminated black-and-yellow boxes were rolled out the next.  

Half a century later, the effectiveness of pedestrian crosswalks is still being debated, as drivers in a hurry don’t always seem inclined to acknowledge them or other pedestrian-safety mechanisms. Ideas laughed at in the past, such as red flags and armbands for seniors, have been revived — and met with criticism again. And, as in the past, calls have been made to improve enforcement. Perhaps, as a September 1958 Daily Star editorial concluded, “The big improvement must come from drivers themselves; and that, it seems, will be brought about by being stern, even harsh, with ignorance and infractions.”

Sources: the October 29, 1957, September 12, 1958, September 18, 1958, September 19, 1958, September 20, 1958, September 23, 1958, September 24, 1958, October 22, 1958, November 13, 1958, November 25, 1958, September 12, 1959, November 21, 1959, November 27, 1959, December 1, 1959, April 30, 1960, July 20, 1960, October 31, 1961, November 14, 1961, June 1, 1962, and May 17, 1966, editions of the Globe and Mail; the May 25, 1960, May 26, 1960, and June 1, 1962, editions of the Hamilton Spectator; the February 28, 1956, September 12, 1957, September 12, 1958, September 18, 1958, June 11, 1959, January 2, 1963, and May 4, 1966, editions of the Toronto Daily Star; and the September 16, 1958, September 17, 1958, and September 18, 1958, editions of the Telegram.​​​​​​​​​​​​​​

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