Turns out, there's a method to the madness of crosswalk lights. Here it is.

About five years ago, municipalities across the United States, Canada, and likely points elsewhere began installing new technology for crosswalk safety.

Gone were many of the simple “WALK" or “DON'T WALK" signals (or corresponding hand or figure illustrations) like this one:


Image via Thinkstock.

They were replaced by ones with countdown clocks, telling pedestrians how much time they had before they could no longer safely cross the street. The video here is an example, or here's an image:

Image by Oran Viriyincy/Flickr (cropped).

These new crosswalk signals had a pretty clear goal: keep pedestrians safer by giving them advance warning as to when the traffic lights would change.

And guess what? According to a study published in 2014 written by a pair of economists (PDF available here), the crosswalks worked.

The two researchers, Sacha Kapoor and Arvind Magesan, studied the change in accident rates at nearly 2,000 intersections in Toronto and concluded the pedestrians stopped when the timer ticked too low and rushed to safety at other times — and as a result, dangerous intersections became less dangerous.

The planned outcome of the new crosswalk signals worked.

Unfortunately, the researchers discovered that pedestrians weren't the only ones making use of the countdown.

Drivers were noticing them too, and that unintended use had an unintended — and hardly positive — outcome. Toronto was left with a bunch more car accidents.

Over time, the rate of accidents at these intersections increased.

NPR explains:

The largest increase is in rear-end accidents and we think it's because two cars approaching a light, who both see the countdown, the guy behind, he sees the two or three seconds and thinks, oh, the guy in front of me is going to floor it too, I'll floor it and we'll both get through the intersection. Whereas the guy in front thinks, OK, I only have two or three seconds left, I'm going to slowdown. And this is exactly the type of accident that would happen in that case.

To make matters worse, the researchers (per NPR) discovered that “the biggest increases in crashes come at intersections that were previously safe intersections."

Further, as drivers got used to the timers, they began to realize that even having one second left on the clock is enough time to get through the intersection if they're willing to gun the engine, even if recklessly. So, over time, the rate of accidents at these intersections increased.

Unfortunately, Toronto's city government, upon hearing of the research, objected to the results and showed little interest in making any changes, at least initially.

If Toronto or any other city wishes to fix the problem, though, the solutions put forth by Kapoor and Magesan are pretty simple: either find a way to shield the countdown information from drivers or, if that proves difficult, put the old-style crosswalk signals in generally safe intersections.

That second idea wouldn't be out of the ordinary — it is exactly the strategy New York City employs.

Image via Thinkstock.

Dan Lewis runs the popular daily newsletter Now I Know ("Learn Something New Every Day, By Email"). To subscribe to his daily email, click here.

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In many ways, 18-year-old Idaho native, Hank Cazier, is like any other teenager you've met. He loves chocolate, pop music, and playing games with his family. He has lofty dreams of modeling for a major clothing company one day. But one thing that sets him apart may also jeopardize his future is his recent battle against a brain tumor.

Cazier was diagnosed in 2015. When he had surgery to remove the tumor, he received trauma to his brain and lost some of his motor functionality. He's been in physical, occupational, and speech therapy ever since. The experience impacted Cazier's confidence and self-esteem, so he's been looking for a way to build himself back up again.

"I wanted to do something that helped me look forward to the future," he says.

Enter Make-A-Wish, a nonprofit organization that grants wishes for children battling critical illnesses, providing them a chance to make the impossible possible. The organization partnered with Macy's to raise awareness and help make those wishes a reality. The hope is that the "wish effect" will improve their quality of life and empower them with the strength they need to overcome these illnesses and look towards the future. That was a particularly big deal for Cazier, who had been feeling like so many of his wishes weren't going to be possible because of his critical illness.

"In the beginning, it was hard to accept that it would be improbable for me to accomplish my previous goals because my illness took away so many of my physical abilities," says Cazier. His wish of becoming a model also seemed out of reach.

But Macy's and Make-A-Wish didn't see it like that. Once they learned about Cazier's wish, they knew he had to make it come true by inviting him to be part of the magical Macy's holiday shoot in New York.

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Make-A-Wish can't fulfill children's wishes without the generosity of donors and partners like Macy's. In fact, since 2003, Macy's has given more than $122 million to Make-A-Wish and impacted the lives of more than 2.9 million people.

Cazier's wish experience was beyond what he could've imagined, and it filled him with so much joy and confidence. "It is like waking up and discovering that you have super powers. It feels amazing!" he exclaims.

One of the best parts about the day for him was the kindness everyone who helped make it happen showed him.

"The employees of Macy's and Make-A-Wish made me feel welcome, warm, and cared for," he says. "I am truly grateful that even though they were busy doing their jobs, they were able to show kindness and compassion towards me in all of the little details."

He also got to spend part of the shoot outdoors, which, as someone who loves climbing, hiking, and scuba-diving but has trouble doing those activities now, was very welcome.

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Overall, Cazier feels he grew a lot during his modeling wish and is now emboldened to work towards a better quality of life. "I want to acquire skills that help me continue to improve in these circumstances," he says.

You can change the lives of more kids like Cazier just by writing a letter to Santa and dropping it in the big red letterbox at Macy's (you can also write and submit one online). For every letter received before Dec. 24, 2019, Macy's will donate $1 to Make-A-Wish, up to $1 million. By writing a letter to Santa, you can help a child replace fear with confidence, sadness with joy, and anxiety with hope.

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