A Quick Early History of Toronto’s First Traffic Signals and The ‘Right on Red’ Rule

In the first half of the twentieth century, automobiles had quite an impact on the streets of Toronto. In 1913, there were 17,000 cars in Toronto; by 1923, the number grew to about 50,000 cars. New rules and technologies were adopted to better manage and regulate how motorists behaved, especially concerning the other users of the road and their safety.

Traffic conditions, Adelaide and Bay, 12:10, (Executive Department), 1927.
Source: City of Toronto Archives

Traffic Lights: A Most Beneficial System

On August 8, 1925, Torontonians were introduced to their first set of automated traffic signals. The new ‘semaphores’ were set up at the busy intersection of Yonge Street and Bloor Street on a trial basis and changed the history of Toronto’s streets forever. It was at least three years in the making, with Toronto Chief of Police Samuel J. Dickson advocating for and finally receiving the system in that time.

“Traffic Control by Lighting System” The Toronto Daily Star, August 8, 1925.
Source: Toronto Star Archives
“Traffic Control by Lighting System” The Toronto Daily Star, August 8, 1925.
Source: Toronto Star Archives

Before traffic lights, intersections were regulated by traffic policemen. In the 1910s, this was done largely through hand signals, whistles, and yelling. In 1920, a new ‘semaphore’ was piloted (again at Yonge and Bloor) which consisted of the officer controlling a staffed sign with the words “STOP” and “GO” written on them. The officer rotated the sign to control the flow of traffic. If one peruses archival photos of highly trafficked Toronto intersections, it is common to see a police officer amid the action.

Southwest corner of Yonge and Bloor streets, 1923.
Source: City of Toronto Archives.
“Semaphore on Trial”, The Toronto Daily Star, June 6, 1920.
Source: Toronto Star Archives.

The new traffic lights were an overall success. Automated signals were installed on major junctions along Yonge Street, Bloor Street, and Danforth Avenue, and in suburbs such as East York within the next few years after their introduction. As an example of the new semaphores’ impact, The Globe reported in December 1929, the intersection of Bloor Street and Keele Street had an average of 4 or 5 accidents a day before automated signals were installed there in 1927; there were no accidents after that point.

Police Chief Dickson even dreamed of a master tower at Yonge and Queen to control all the lights in the city. The idea became a reality at the end of 1926. There was even synchronicity within the lights: a motorist travelling straight on Danforth Avenue between Main Street and Broadview Avenue in 1928 was able to meet all green lights if he travelled at 19 or 20 miles per hour; any slower or faster, the driver would hit a red light (the speed was 18 miles per hour downtown).

Automatic traffic signal, King and Yonge, 1927. Traffic Lights were switched to a vertical orientation and a yellow/amber ‘warning’ light was formalized several years after 1925.
Source: City of Toronto Archives.

Of course, several early reports indicated that the new lights were not all good. Even the Mayor weighed in, saying to the Police Chief in October 1925 that officers were still stationed at the Yonge and Bloor ‘experiment’, seemingly defeating the Chief’s goal of having the technology free up more policemen from traffic duty. Sometimes they did not function properly or at all, as The Globe reported in July 1928 of the new, often “stuck” Dundas Street East signals. But despite these complaints, the lights were there to stay; 96 signals were installed in Toronto by the end of the 1920s.

Queen and Yonge, looking west, traffic, noon – 1 p.m., (Executive Department), 1929. Despite the functioning green light, an officer monitors the traffic.
Source: City of Toronto Archives
Bloor and Yonge streets, southwest corner, 1928. One compare the crossing to the earlier 1923 image.
Source: City of Toronto Archives

The ‘Right on Red’ Rule

One of the most interesting impacts of the rise and success of traffic lights was a ‘new’ law that permitted a motorist to make a right-hand turn against a signal that would otherwise make him wait at the intersection. This is the ‘right on red’ rule. On March 22, 1927, Police Chief Dickson announced the reinstatement of the permission, indicating that it was actually in effect “some time ago” and the success of the new lights could now allow for it once more. It is unclear what period the rule was previously in place or why it disappeared, although reckless driving at unmanned intersections is a theory for its removal.

Corner of King and Yonge streets, 1910. Note the right-turning vehicle.
Source: City of Toronto Archives

The ‘right on red’ permission was not without controversy, even with the police itself. The organization vowed to watch right-turning drivers and warned them to prioritize the safety of pedestrians who had the right of way to cross the street.

In July 1928, new Police Chief D.C. Draper reiterated motorists were allowed to turn right at a “hostile” light, having “regard” of other cars and pedestrians who have the right of way. However, in March 1929, Draper advocated against the rule. In a report by the Traffic Committee, which monitored Toronto streets for more than a month for traffic improvements, the Chief suggested, among other items, the discontinuance of “the present practice of motorists making a right-hand turn against the red light” or “otherwise give them a warning that the pedestrians have the right of way, and that right-hand turns against a red signal are only allowed when care is exercised”. The Board of Control ultimately went against the Chief and retained the rule while reiterated motorists were responsible for pedestrian safety.

King and Yonge streets, northwest corner, looking west, 1912.
Source: City of Toronto Archives

Interestingly, in Hamilton, which was the setting of Canada’s first traffic lights just two months before Toronto’s semaphores were installed, the Traffic Committee wanted to abolish the rule which allowed right-hand turns on red lights in 1933. Oddly, it was met with disapproval from the Ontario Department of Highways. The by-law ultimately remained.

Despite many calls in Toronto in the decades since to remove the permission for good, the Highway Traffic Act currently upholds it in Ontario:

s. 144 (19) Despite subsection (18) and subject to subsection (14) [Green Arrows], a driver, after stopping his or her vehicle and yielding the right of way to traffic lawfully approaching so closely that to proceed would constitute an immediate hazard, may,

(a) turn to the right; or

(b) turn to the left from a one-way street into a one-way street,

without a green indication being shown.

Traffic conditions, Adelaide and Bay, 1210, (Executive Department), 1927. Note the traffic light and police officer on horseback.
Source: City of Toronto Archives

To Stop or Not?

Another interesting question arose on the requirement to stop before turning right. In November 1927, a person writing into The Toronto Daily Star‘s “Voice of The People” section was puzzled by the different standards of when there was a stop sign at an intersection (which he interpreted as ‘stop means stop’) and when there was a policeman with a semaphore (which he interpreted as ‘stop means stop sometimes‘). The editor replied that when an officer was holding the semaphore, he supervises traffic and allows right turns without stopping. When there is no officer, all cars must stop.

Southeast corner of Bloor and Yonge streets (Imperial Bank of Canada), 1924.
Source: City of Toronto Archives

Within Toronto City Hall, the issue of drivers legally passing through a red light to turn right was debated for several years. In July 1929, Toronto’s Traffic Committee suggested an amendment of certain by-laws to protect pedestrians, including motorists were to come to a stop before making a right-hand turn against the red light. It did not seem to have made an impact. In December 1933, the idea was raised again, this time proving more successful. The Board of Control favoured a change to the by-law so that every driver must come to a full stop before making a right turn at an intersection controlled by automatic traffic signals. The change seemed to be spurred by complaints that motorists were not heeding the way to pedestrians and “showing no consideration for the pedestrian”. City Council adopted the change on December 12th of the year, subject to approval by the Department of Highways.

“City of Toronto Traffice By-Laws”, The Toronto Daily Star, March 2, 1933.
Source: Toronto Star Archives

Inexplicably, the rule was changed back only four months later. In April 1934, the by-law requiring motorists to make a complete stop before a right turn at a red light was rescinded. The Board of Police Commissioners instructed police officers to safeguard the rights of pedestrians once more.

It is unclear when exactly the law reverted once again, but it seems the matter was not closed. The idea seemed to be backed in other circles, too. In a February 1934 meeting of the Ontario Motor League, a suggestion was advanced that those turning right in the province should come to a full stop at both a red land green light. In 1938, a reader of The Globe and Mail expressed his displeasure in the lack of pedestrian rights in motorists not having to stop before right turns. A decade later, in July 1948, the same newspaper rode along with Toronto Traffic Safety Council Inspector Vernon H. Page in a motor car as he pointed out traffic infractions, including those failing to come to a full stop before a right turn, meaning by this point the law was reinstated.

“Camera Catches Motorists, Pedestrians Breaking Rules”, The Globe and Mail, July 20, 1948.
Source: Globe and Mail Archives

Today, of course, a red light does indeed mean ‘stop’ in all contexts, as the Highway Traffic Act so states:

s. 144 (18) Every driver approaching a traffic control signal showing a circular red indication and facing the indication shall stop his or her vehicle and shall not proceed until a green indication is shown. 

Yonge Street and Queen Street, southeast corner, 1915.
Source: City of Toronto Archives

Works Referenced

“24-Hour Operation Of Traffic Signals Proves Successful.” The Globe, 28 July 1928, p. 13.

“24-Hour Police Service, East York, Authorized; Other Changes Urged.” The Globe, 18 Jan. 1929, p. 13.

“Allow Right Turn Against Red Light.” The Toronto Daily Star, 22 Mar. 1927, p. 3.

“Automatic Control Of Central Traffic Assured InToronto.” The Globe, 20 Mar. 1926, p. 14.

“Automatic Control Of Toronto Traffic To Be Inaugurated.” The Globe, 5 Nov. 1926, p. 11.

“Automatic Signals To Be Installed At Fifty-Five More Intersections Controlling All Main Street Traffic.” The Globe, 10 Mar. 1928, p. 8.

“Automatic Signals Will Operate Today At Bloor And Yonge.” The Globe, 8 Aug. 1925, p. 13.

Bateman, Chris. “A Brief History of the First Traffic Lights in Toronto.” BlogTO, BlogTO, 3 Aug. 2013, https://www.blogto.com/city/2013/08/a_brief_history_of_the_first_traffic_lights_in_toronto/.

“Canada’s First Traffic Lights at Hamilton’s Delta.” Thespec.com, 8 May 2021, https://www.thespec.com/life/local-history/spec175/2021/05/08/canadas-frist-traffic-lights-at-hamiltons-delta.html#:~:text=On%20June%2011%2C%201925%2C%20the,lights%20was%20meant%20for%20them.

“Car May Turn Right Against Red Signal.” The Globe, 20 May 1933, p. 2.

“Cars In Toronto Now Number 50,000.” The Globe, 1923 Sept. 1AD, p. 8.

“Chief Draper Asks Co-Operation of Pedestrian And Motorist Of Solving Local Traffic Problem.” The Globe, 10 May 1929, p. 15.

“Chief’s Suggestions In Tabloid Form.” The Globe, 5 Mar. 1929, p. 15.

“City of Toronto Traffic By-Law.” The Toronto Daily Star, 2 Mar. 1933, p. 12.

“Civic Police Force To Be Augmented With Hundred Men.” The Globe, 9 Feb. 1928, p. 13.

“Flashing Lights Operate Traffic Bloor And Yonge.” The Toronto Daily Star, 8 Aug. 1925, p. 1.

Guillet, Edwin C. “Teeth in Traffic Laws.” The Globe and Mail, 13 Oct. 1938, p. 6.

“Highway Traffic Act, R.S.O. 1990, c. H.8.” Ontario.ca, 19 Nov. 2018, https://www.ontario.ca/laws/statute/90h08.

“More Semaphores Soon.” The Toronto Daily Star, 14 July 1920, p. 19.

“More Traffic Signals.” The Globe, 8 June 1928, p. 17.

“Needs Larger Force, Says Chief of Police.” The Globe, 5 Nov. 1925, p. 12.

“New Traffic Signals Are Very Effective.” The Globe, 5 June 1920, p. 16.

“Of Interest to Motorists.” The Globe, 24 Oct. 1925, p. 9.

“Operate Semaphores.” The Toronto Daily Star, 31 May 1920, p. 2.

“Over 100,000 Ontario Cars.” The Globe, 22 July 1919, p. 9.

“Planning Scheme Will Be Discussed By Central Body.” The Globe, 5 Dec. 1929, p. 15.

“Police Chief Wants Automatic Control In Downtown Areas.” The Globe, 24 June 1925, p. 13.

“Police to Safeguard Against Right Turns.” The Globe, 26 Apr. 1934, p. 4.

“Police Traffic Squad Readjust Signal Systems.” The Globe, 10 Aug. 1928, p. 13.

“Remembering Toronto’s First Automated Traffic Lights: August 8: Snapshots in History.” Local History & Genealogy, https://torontopubliclibrary.typepad.com/local-history-genealogy/2019/08/remembering-torontos-first-automated-traffic-lights-august-8-snapshots-in-history.html.

“Return To Old Rule Of Right-Hand Turn.” The Globe, 22 Mar. 1927, p. 11.

“Says Light System As Traffic Signal Is Toronto’s Need.” The Globe, 10 July 1925, p. 9.

Schrag, Lex. “Camera Catches Motorists, Pedestrians Breaking Rules.” The Globe and Mail, 20 July 1948, p. 13.

“Semaphore On Trial.” The Toronto Daily Star, 1 June 1920, p. 1.

“Signal Set Against Police Chief By Board Of Control.” The Globe, 16 Mar. 1929, p. 18.

“Speed Limit Stays Unchanged At Present.” The Globe, 27 Feb. 1934, p. 4.

“Stop Before Right Turn.” The Toronto Daily Star, 12 Dec. 1933, p. 5.

“Stop Before Turn Against Red Light Urged In Report.” The Globe, 29 July 1929, p. 16.

“Stop Recommended Before Right Turn.” The Globe, 7 Dec. 1933, p. 11.

“Traffic Report By Chief Draper Goes To Control Board.” The Globe, 5 Mar. 1929, p. 15.

“Traffic Signal Urged For Danforth And Victoria Park.” The Globe, 16 Oct. 1928, p. 13.

“Traffic Signals Called Obsolete.” The Globe, 15 Feb. 1935, p. 11.

“Voice Of The People.” The Toronto Daily Star, 29 Nov. 1927, p. 6.

“When Lights Get Stuck.” The Globe, 7 July 1928, p. 6.

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