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Have you noticed this change at Seattle intersections?

You may have noticed it. Then again, you might not have while recently driving past crosswalks around Seattle. The Seattle Department of Transportation has slowly made a tiny change to traffic signals around town.

“It’s a very subtle change,” said SDOT spokesperson Ethan Bergerson. “Some people notice it … it’s a change for some drivers because we know there’s a life hack, if you will, to look at the countdown on the crosswalk to get a sense of when that light is going to change. Well, that might not actually be a good thing to do anymore.”

SDOT has altered the timing between when pedestrians use a crosswalk and when a green light signals drivers to pass through an intersection. It’s technically called a “leading pedestrian interval,” but in normal person speak it means that crosswalks will signal pedestrians to cross a street a few seconds before cars are given permission to go. Pedestrians are given between 3 and 7 seconds of free and clear crosswalk time while cars get a red light.

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SDOT has already, quietly done this at 50 intersections around the city. Many more are expected over the next two years, which will make this alteration more of a norm in Seattle. By 2021, SDOT hopes to have 150 intersections that provide pedestrians a head start. All intersections are not slated for this change, however.

“It’s a complicated system, every intersection is a little bit different,” Bergerson said, noting whether an intersection has a left turn lane, or how many pedestrians use it, etc.

“Even though we know that this type of leading pedestrian interval has a lot of safety benefits, it’s not just a one-size-fits-all thing,” he said. “We got to make sure it makes sense … at the end of the day, the goal is to increase safety and we want to make sure we’re doing that deliberately.”

Every intersection is different, right down to the technology operating the traffic signals. Some intersections may need to be upgraded to more recent equipment in order to make the change. With others, SDOT could switch things up remotely.

The crosswalk head start is something that other large cities have been trying out, Bergerson said. New York, he notes, found that there was up to a 60 percent drop in the number of serious collisions with pedestrians.

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Seattle is using grants from the Washington State Department of Transportation to implement the new signal timing — one $450,000 grant and a $1.2 million grant, which will be used to expand the program.

“We’re also considering how cars get through, and how bikes get through…” Bergerson said. “Sometimes putting in a leading pedestrian interval is a good opportunity to put in a bit of a lag time at the end for cars to continue turning … in some cases, after the pedestrian light stops, keep that green light for cars for a few seconds longer so people can turn in their vehicles.”

“In both cases, the point is we are moving the conflict between cars and pedestrians, giving people a predictable time to make their turn or walk across the street,” he said.

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