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Give lights a chance

It has been a few months now since the new traffic signal lights went in at the intersection of Laird and McRae/Wicksteed but I continue to receive calls and messages about them. Some people think they are not functioning properly. Others argue that they make a bad intersection worse.

The matter is made no less complicated in that the lights did in fact function improperly for the first few days after they were installed, leading some to the conclusion that the change that was later made to the operating mode was a breakdown whereas it was actually a fix. 

To understand the situation, begin with the reality that the intersection is a bad one to begin with. The oblique angle at which McRae approaches from the west creates an odd situation both for drivers headed east from McRae across Laird towards Wicksteed and for drivers headed west from Wicksteed across Laird towards McRae. Not to mention drivers turning left in either direction.

In the past there was an attempt to address the situation with painted “skip lines” on the road surface. The goal, of course, was to direct the flow of traffic safely. Or so one would have hoped. The actual experience was that the lines directed traffic from the west turning north and traffic from the east turning south head on into each other.

After a few close calls the lines were removed.

My hope immediately after getting elected in 2006 was to acquire a portion of the corner of the then vacant property owned by Smart Centres and make use of it to reconstruct the intersection altogether with conventional 90 degree angles. My idea was squelched when I learned that plans had already been approved to allow the owner to develop the portion in question. The new Royal Bank branch sits there now.

The existing three-phase traffic signal is the latest attempt to address the hazards inherent in the geometry of the intersection.

Most drivers have come to recognize that traffic approaching from the east and from the west now encounter two distinct green light phases:

The first is a dedicated left turn light. It clears accumulated left turn traffic in each direction.

The second phase is a dedicated “through” light. It permits traffic to head east or west but prohibits left turns in either direction.

By splitting the phases the signal avoids the predicament of left turn traffic from either direction colliding with oncoming through traffic.

It works if everyone obeys the lights. It doesn’t if drivers disobey them.

Some drivers clearly think that the left turn light is a conventional “advanced left” signal, and that left turns are OK as long as one of the lights is green. That’s not how these lights work. These lights separate left turn traffic and through traffic into distinct phases. The purpose is not to make the traffic flow more readily but to get it through a bad intersection more safely.

I have asked staff to monitor things to see how it’s working. I welcome your comments on the matter at councillor_parker@toronto.ca.