Ottawa

'Scary' incident sparks call to halt rollout of traffic safety software

A made-in-Ottawa technology meant to protect cyclists at some controlled intersections is posing a whole new risk, according to one city councillor.

Amber lock software installed at 33 of the planned 192 Ottawa intersections so far

Dave Robertson says he noticed a recent change in the traffic lights at an intersection he uses regularly to cross Carling Avenue near the Trillium LRT station. (Submitted by Dave Robertson)

A made-in-Ottawa technology meant to protect cyclists at some controlled intersections is posing a whole new risk, according to one city councillor.

Revert reds — also known as red reverts — have been in place for years. They occur when vehicles, including bicycles, cause sensors in the road to trigger a traffic light change.

The sensor technology is meant to speed the flow of traffic through intersections and cut down on emissions from idling vehicles. But if the vehicle or bicycle moves past the sensors too soon, the signal immediately switches back to red and the cross traffic gets a green light again, posing a potential danger for cyclists.

Instead, the amber lock software was supposed to guarantee the opposing traffic signal will stay red for five seconds, giving cyclists more time to cross an intersection.

If a cyclist moves off the yellow sensors on the ground before the light changes completely, the traffic signal can revert back to red in their direction, potentially putting the cyclist in the middle of an intersection with oncoming traffic. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

Amber lock added to 33 intersections so far

The rollout, which has reached 33 of the planned 192 intersections, does not appear to be working as planned.

Dave Robertson says he noticed something had changed recently where a multi-use pathway crosses Carling Avenue near Dows Lake. The lights used to change to green after a cyclist triggered the yellow sensors, no matter what.

Instead, he noticed if a cyclist rolled off the sensors, a revert red now occurs. He chose to film it happening to him last week.

Even though he knew it was happening, "it was still scary," he said.

The rollout for the amber lock software began late this summer. So far, all traffic signal-controlled multi-use pathways have the software, according to Phil Landry, the city's director of traffic services.

(The installation includes an intersection CBC reported on in 2018 where a cyclist was struck and killed by a taxi. Ottawa police later said a revert red was not a factor in that collision.)

The rollout also includes the intersection where Robertson noticed a traffic signal change. CBC has reviewed his video. The video shows four to five seconds before the opposing traffic signals change back to green.

Councillors call for halt to rollout

The irony, according to Coun. Catherine McKenney, is this intersection was never a problem before.

"We've had issues and concerns about revert reds at many intersections ... this intersection actually has always worked well," said McKenney.

"So, when I first saw it, I was surprised to see that it wasn't functioning the way that it had."

McKenney had originally called last spring's announcement of the amber lock rollout "a huge relief," but seeing it in action, several councillors now want the rollout to stop immediately.

Somerset Coun. Catherine McKenney wants an end to red revert technology that can pose a danger for cyclists. (Kimberley Molina/CBC)

Kitchissippi Coun. Jeff Leiper plans to bring forward a report to transportation committee next month asking for an elimination of all revert reds across the city.

"All we're asking for is that every road user has that same certainty that they're going to be able to safely get through the intersection, and this amber lock technology is not doing what we had intended it to result in," McKenney said.

"It does not provide for safe passage for cyclists. It is still a danger moving through intersections and at this point, what we're asking for is there to be no revert to reds at any intersection."

Some city councillors want to scrap red reverts and amber locks, two technologies meant to help traffic flow and protect cyclists, after some Ottawans are raising the alarm that the light changes may in fact make intersections more dangerous.

Robertson agrees the software does not look out for pedestrians, cyclists, or anyone not travelling in a vehicle.

"I would probably ask that we reconsider and look at technologies that keep people safe instead," he said.

"If we really want that to happen, we have to make sure that our systems are safe for people and make sure that they're convenient too."

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