Signs & Signals

To learn more about Signs and Signals select any of the following links:


The Region of Waterloo manages almost 500 traffic signals in its cities and townships, most of them controlled by the Traffic Control Centre at Regional Headquarters in Kitchener.

Signal warrants are used to set standards and benchmarks for the installation of new traffic signals. Factors include vehicle and pedestrian volumes, delays and the history of collisions at an intersection.

We follow signal warrants to:

  • Ensure signals are installed on a fair and equitable basis
  • Promote an efficient, environmentally friendly Regional transportation network
  • Be consistent with other jurisdictions

Click here to go back to top of page.

How Traffic Signals Operate

We are often asked why traffic signals operate a certain way. Following is an explanation of different types of traffic signal operation and some frequently asked questions.

Each signal operates in one of three ways:

  • Fixed-Time
    This type of signal operation is used when the volume of traffic is about the same on both streets. Constant cycling provides a predetermined period of green light to each street. "Walk" and flashing "Don't Walk" symbols appear with the green signal.
  • Semi-Actuated
    This type of signal is used if there are significantly lower vehicle volumes on the side street or if there are peak periods when volumes fluctuate.  The signal on the main street stays green until a vehicle is detected on the side street (vehicle detectors are placed in or over the road) or until a pedestrian presses the pushbutton for a "Walk" symbol. With this type of signal, the "Walk" or "Don't Walk" symbols are not displayed unless a pushbutton is pressed. The traffic signal will change at a pre-set time to minimize interruptions and maintain co-ordination on the major street.
  • Fully Actuated
    Vehicle detectors are installed in all lanes and a minimum amount of green time is displayed unless additional vehicles are detected. Pedestrian pushbuttons must be pressed to display the "Walk" and "Don't Walk" symbols.

    Note: Only fixed-time and semi-actuated signals can be co-ordinated. They will always display a green light on the major street at pre-set times. It is not possible to co-ordinate fully actuated signals since their green lights are based on vehicle demand, which is always changing.

Click here to go back to top of page.

Frequently Asked Questions about Traffic Signals

Question: What do I do if traffic signals are not working properly?


  1. When signals are flashing amber: proceed with caution.
  2. When signals are flashing red: treat as an all-way stop.
  3. When signals are black/no display: treat as an all-way stop.
  4. To report a traffic signal that is not working properly call 519-575-4400 and do it hands free if driving.


Question: Why are signals well coordinated on some streets, but not others?

Answer: Good coordination for both directions of travel on two-way streets is not always possible.  The direction carrying the highest traffic volume is usually favoured. 

You may also notice changes in coordination throughout the day due to changing traffic patterns.  One direction may be favoured during morning peak periods while the opposite direction is favoured in the afternoon.

Coordination is set to reflect the posted speed limit.  Driving the speed limit may result in fewer stops.  Slower traffic speeds caused by volume of traffic are also considered when coordinating signals.  Coordination is usually set up for through traffic, but in some cases heavy turning traffic is favoured.   


Question: Why are there delays on side streets?

Answer: On low-volume side streets there are vehicle detectors that are placed in or over the road.  They allow the signals to remain green on the major street until a vehicle is detected or a pedestrian pushes the pushbutton.  The signal will change at a pre-set time to minimize interruption to traffic on the major street. 


Question: How does the traffic signal know my vehicle is at the intersection?

Answer: A vehicle is detected in one of two ways:

  1. Overhead detectors mounted above the roadway are aimed at the vehicle Stop line.
  2. Loop detectors placed in the roadway produce a magnetic field.  When a vehicle passes over the loop the metal in the vehicle changes the magnetic field.

When a vehicle is detected, a message is sent to the signal controller to change the light sequence.  Detectors also allow the green to be extended by additional vehicles at actuated traffic signals.  The detectors do not sense weight.


Question: What happens to the traffic signals if the computer fails?

Answer: The traffic signals still operate because of a special feature called the Time-Based Coordinator (TBC) installed at all intersections.  A TBC unit contains a copy of the signal timing plans and will control the traffic signals until the computer failure is corrected.  This feature was designed for the Region of Waterloo to ensure minimal disruption to motorists.  


Question: What happens to traffic signals if an emergency vehicle is responding to a call?

Answer: Some emergency vehicles are equipped with devices which pre-empt traffic signals.  In that case, a green is given to the street on which the emergency vehicle is travelling.  When that vehicle clears the intersection, the signals revert back to computer control.  It may take two or three cycles to re-establish coordination.

Some signalized intersections close to railway crossings are pre-empted when a train crosses.  After the train clears the crossing, traffic signals revert back to computer control.

Click here to go back to top of page.

Pedestrians & Traffic Control Signals

Studies suggest a traffic signal generally does not improve pedestrian safety. Most pedestrian collisions in the Region occur at signalized intersections, most often while the pedestrian is in the crosswalk and has the right-of-way.

In Waterloo Region, on average, more than twice as many collisions occur at a signalized intersection compared to a Stop-controlled intersection with similar traffic volumes.

Collisions tend to increase when a new signal is installed.  Regional staff compared 2 years of collisions at 47 intersections within Waterloo Region before and after installing signals.  Traffic volume increase an average of 3 percent during that time, while overall collisions increased by 20 percent and pedestrian collisions jumped from 2 to 8.  Excluding angle collisions, injury collisions increased by 70 percent.   

The Region receives requests to install signals, for example at school crossings, but the added convenience may come at the expense of safety. At an intersection, a pedestrian needs to be aware of vehicles turning from numerous directions. However, with a signal the pedestrian may feel safe in simply watching for the Walk signal and neglect to scan for vehicles.

Click here to go back to top of page.

Pedestrian Countdown SignalsPedestrianCountdownSignals.jpg

A pedestrian countdown signal (PCS) is intended to provide pedestrians with more detailed information, regarding the amount of time left to cross a roadway at a signalized intersection.  The PCS provides a numeric count down display that indicates the remaining time, in seconds, for a pedestrian to complete their crossing of the roadway.

The device starts counting at the beginning of the "flashing don't walk" display showing how many seconds a pedestrian has left to finish crossing the road.  The pedestrian sees both the "flashing don't walk" signal and the countdown signal as two adjacent signal heads.  The initial value (seconds) displayed is dependent on the length of the crosswalk, so the display value varies from one crossing to another.

Click here to go back to top of page.     

Accessible Pedestrian Signals


Accessible Pedestrian Signals, formerly known as an audible signal, advise pedestrians who are blind, visually impaired, or deaf-blind when they have the right-of-way to cross a roadway.  The new term Accessible Pedestrian Signal (APS) is used to consider the accessibility requirements of persons with disabilities other than blindness or visual impairment and reflects the concept of universal access.

With the passing of Bill 118: Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act 2005, the Region of Waterloo is committed to the principles set out in the Act to suitably meet the needs of pedestrians with visual impairments or other disabilities.  The Region of Waterloo works with the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB), as a resource, in order to effectively address these needs and to establish a standard for the installation of APS to promote uniformity.

An APS is a device that relays information about the most appropriate time to cross the street (during the walk interval) using non-visual methods such as:

  • audible tone
  • verbal speech messages
  • vibrating surfaces
  • tactile messages
  • receiver or any combination of the above methods

APS devices should be used as a supplemental device to existing orientation and mobility techniques to assist visually and/or hearing impaired individuals with street crossings.  APS provides improved security for pedestrians with visual and/or hearing impairments by allowing them greater mobility.

Click here to go back to top of page.

How Accessible Pedestrian Signals Work

Accessible Pedestrian Signals (APS) are linked to the visual pedestrian signals.  The APS advise pedestrians who are blind, visually impaired, and deaf-blind when they have the right-of-way for a particular crossing or direction.

Two audible tones are used to distinctly indicate the direction and pedestrian symbol in which the pedestrian has the right-of-way:

  • A "Cuckoo" sound indicates that the "walk" symbol is on and the pedestrian has the right-of-way in the north/south direction.  Select play below to listen to the Cuckoo sound.
  • A "Canadian Melody" sound indicates that the pedestrian has the right-of-way in the east/west direction.  Select play below to listen to the Canadian Melody sound.

The Region no longer requires users to hold the pushbutton down for 5 seconds to activate the signal.

In addition to the "cuckoo" and "Canadian Melody" sounds, the APS pushbuttons are equipped with a continuous tone called a "locator tone."  This tone is emitted from the pushbuttons to assist pedestrians, who are visually impaired, in locating the pushbuttons.

The APS sounds and locator tones automatically adjust to ambient (i.e. background) sound levels.  During peak traffic periods where ambient sound volume levels are typically higher, the APS sound automatically adjusts and is louder.  During the overnight or off-peak periods they drop to their lowest volume level. 

Pushbuttons in the Region of Waterloo are also equipped with a raised tactile arrow that points in the direction of the pedestrian crossing.  This arrow vibrates when the APS Cuckoo or Canadian Melody sounds are activated.

Click here to go back to top of page.

How can I request an APS Evaluation to be conducted?

The Region installs accessible pedestrian signals at existing signalized intersections based on available capital funding.  Locations are requested through our local chapter of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB).

In addition to the passing of Bill 118 accessible pedestrian signals will be installed at all new or reconstructed intersections.   

Intersection Pedestrian Signals

Intersection Pedestrian Signals are specifically designed to assist pedestrians in crossing the main street. They include:

  • pedestrian signal heads with "Walk" and "Don't Walk" symbols
  • red, amber and green traffic signal indications for motorists on the main street which the pedestrians will be crossing
  • Stop signs for motorists on the side street

A pedestrian must push a pushbutton to cross the main street. After a short delay, the traffic signal will change to red, indicating motorists on the main street must stop. The "Walk" and flashing "Don't Walk" symbols will then be displayed for pedestrians to cross. Pedestrians in the crosswalk during "Walk" or "Flashing Don't Walk" indicators have the right-of-way.

Motorists on the main street must obey the traffic signal indications the same as any traffic signal. This includes stopping at the stop line during a red light and waiting for gaps in the opposing traffic during a green, if turning left, or stopping then turning right during the red indication.

Motorists on the side street will always face a Stop sign. They are required to yield to all pedestrians and vehicles on the main street. This includes checking for pedestrians and waiting for an acceptable gap in the vehicular traffic on the main street. Motorists must obey the Stop sign even if vehicles on the main street have stopped.

The Intersection Pedestrian Signal will only change if a pedestrian pushes the pushbutton. Vehicles waiting on the side street do not affect the traffic signal.

Click here to go back to top of page.

Frequently Asked Questions about Pedestrians & Signals

Question: Why doesn't the Walk symbol stay on until I'm all the way across the street?

Answer: The Walk symbol lets pedestrians know when to begin to cross.  It is timed to allow pedestrians to get approximately halfway across the intersection before the Don't Walk symbol flashes on.  As long as you are partway across, you will have time to complete the crossing safely.


Question: Why doesn't the Walk symbol come on every time the light turns green?

Answer: At some traffic signals, we set separate timing plans for pedestrians and vehicles.  In these cases, we equip the intersection with pedestrian pushbuttons and the Walk symbol is only displayed if someone presses the pushbutton.


Question: Why is there a wait for the Walk symbol after I press the pushbutton?

Answer: Generally, traffic signals are timed to favour heavier traffic volumes on major streets.  Pressing the pushbutton sends a message to the signal controller that a person wants to cross the street.  The signals will change at a pre-set time to minimize the interruption to traffic on the major street.


Question: How can I be sure that my children and I cross the road safely?

Answer: First, look for a pedestrian pushbutton.  If there is one, you must push it for the direction in which you want to cross or the signal head will not change.  Once the Walk symbol is displayed, begin to cross.  The pedestrian signal heads are timed for walking speed; you don't have to run, but do walk briskly.

Pedestrian information signs have been installed at many signalized intersections in the Region.  They describe how pedestrian signal heads operate, please remember to look for them. 


Question: Why do some intersections have pedestrian signal heads while others do not?

Answer: It is general practice in the Region to install pedestrian signal heads at any new traffic control signal where there is pedestrian activity.  Pedestrian signal heads are also being added to existing traffic control signals as budget permits.


Questions: How do I safely cross from a right-turn island to the curb when there are no pedestrian signals?  Do cars have to stop for me?

Answer: No.  In most cases, the crossing between the island and the curb is not controlled by traffic signals.  Therefore, pedestrians must yield the right-of-way to turning vehicles.

Click here to go back to top of page.       


Common misconceptions about traffic signing:

  • That a sign is the best way to alleviate a safety issue
  • That more signs are better than fewer signs
  • That modifying standard signing practice will make the information clearer to the public
  • That signs are effective in modifying driver behaviour

Understanding traffic signing:

  • Signing is an evidence-based science that relies on factors such as what a driver expects to see, what is easily recognized, and what information will be processed.
  • Overuse of signs generates disrespect and diminishes effectiveness.
  • Unnecessary signs and posts represent a hazard to disobeying motorists and may cause an obstruction to pedestrians and bicyclists.
  • Unnecessary signs; are a waste of taxpayer dollars, create a continuing cost in maintenance, and become visual distractions.

Click here to go back to top of page.

EDR_Sign.gifEmergency Detour Routes (EDR)

EDR signs are used during the unscheduled closure of a provincial highway when OPP detour all traffic off the highway. The EDR markers are located along alternative routes and provide direction to motorists around the closure and back onto the highway.

If you have questions regarding EDR within Waterloo Region contact or call 519-575-4558.

Click here to go back to top of page.