Traffic Signal Enlightenment
By Dona Sauerburger, COMS
November 1997 Newsletter
Metropolitan Washington Orientation and Mobility Association (WOMA)

February 2006 NOTE: This article is of interest partly for its explanation of how to determine which traffic engineering entity has jurisdiction over which intersections, and partly for its historic value, as it and the two articles written by blind pedestrian advocates were written when many of us were struggling to learn about traffic signals, actuation, and the mysterious world of the traffic engineers. The information about jurisdiction is still valid and applies throughout the United States, but some of the information about actuation and Accessible Pedestrian Signals (APS) is insufficient or outmoded. It might be helpful to compare this early effort with the article that was written in the fall of 2005, Crossing at Modern Signals, which reflects the ensuing 8 years of experience we've had with these intersections and offers more accurate information.

This article explains the first intrepid meeting of the Metropolitan Washington Orientation and Mobility Association (WOMA) with traffic engineers. Two years later WOMA had discussions with the Maryland State Highway Administration and blind advocates which culminated in a meeting, all of which is documented in a series of articles:
  • Accessible Pedestrian Signals Progress and Regress (July 1999)
  • Maryland State Highway Administration: APSs and Pilot Study (November 1999)

    Articles written at about this time which explore the challenges and solutions for complex signals are:
  • Blind Pedestrian Killed; Intersection Design Contributing Cause
    (explains the tragic consequences of modern traffic signals that don't provide for pedestrians);
  • Leading Pedestrian Interval - A Solution We've Been Waiting for!
    (explains a possible solution to heavy turning traffic)

    A wealth of resources and information about APS and other accessibility issues can be found on these websites:
  • U.S. Access board
  • Accessible Design for the Blind
  • Accessibility page of the Institute of Transportation Engineers
  • ADA home page
  • The Environmental Access Committee (EAC) of the AER O&M Division has names of EAC Committee members who can be resources throughout the U.S. and Canada

    Enjoy this little trip back through time!

    Many of us learned a lot from our September WOMA meeting, where we had two guest speakers and one special guest. Our speakers were two traffic engineers, one from a county in Maryland and one from the state of Maryland. They were Mike Rohlfs, Contract Coordinator for the Planning and Design Section of the Prince George's County Department of Public Works and Transportation, and Gene Straub, Deputy Director of the Maryland State Highway Administration's Office of Traffic and Safety.

    Our special guest was Lois Thibault, Coordinator of Training for the U.S. Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board (the "Access Board"). Lois has a keen interest in the accessibility of the environment for people who are disabled, and is involved in some exciting projects concerning the accessibility of intersections for blind people (see article on page 10).

    For those of you who asked what you missed, I'll report some of what we learned, plus some additional information that I've learned since the meeting. This should bring you up to date so you can join us when we continue the discussion in more detail at our next meeting.

    Jurisdiction of intersections:

    Each intersection in Maryland that is along numbered highways (for example Route 1) is the responsibility of the Maryland State Highway Administration. The decisions about these intersections are made by seven local districts. These local districts also conduct the studies to determine the needs at those intersections. Throughout the state, there are about 1800 traffic signals installed along these numbered highways, and a third of these signals have pedestrian signals.

    In Prince Georges County, there are about a dozen municipalities that are responsible for intersections within their jurisdictions. All other intersections besides those along numbered highways are the responsibility of the county's Department of Public Works and Transportation, which has about 165 traffic signals installed.

    Although we did not have representatives from the traffic engineers of Baltimore or any other towns or cities in Maryland, those towns and cities each are responsible for the intersections in their jurisdiction except for those along the numbered highways (which belong to the State). Washington DC is responsible for all intersections within the city.

    Each jurisdiction has its own policies regarding the installation and maintenance of traffic signals, including the pedestrian signals and buttons. For example, Prince George's County has installed pedestrian signals and buttons at all their traffic signals because, even though it costs more, their policy is to provide access to pedestrians regardless of how many people normally cross there. The state of Maryland, however, installs pedestrian signals and buttons only at those traffic signals that normally have enough pedestrians to warrant it. Each jurisdiction also has its own policy regarding audible pedestrian signals, which will be explained below.

    Actuation and how it affects pedestrians: (NOTE: This was written in 1997 -- there is updated, more complete information at "actuation")

    Most of us are familiar with "fixed-time" traffic signals, in which the cycle is pre-determined so that the length of time in the cycle is always the same for a given street each time it has the green light. "Actuation" is a modern feature of traffic signals with which we O&Mers must become familiar because we need to teach our students how it affects the time that they have to cross. When a signal for a street is actuated, it means that it will turn green for that street only if traffic approaches the intersection on that street, and it will stay green only long enough for those vehicles to cross. The signal will also turn green for an actuated street if a pedestrian activates the button to cross parallel to that street. However, in this case the light stays green at least long enough for the average pedestrian to reach the middle of the last lane.

    Thus, in order for pedestrians to make sure they have enough time to cross at intersections where their parallel street is actuated, they must push the pedestrian button.

    Our students need to understand how the pedestrian buttons work. For example, when an actuated signal is activated (either by someone pushing the pedestrian button, or by vehicles approaching the intersection), the light will not necessarily change to green immediately for them to cross -- it will turn green for them during the normal phase in that cycle. However, if both streets are actuated and someone pushes the pedestrian button to cross the secondary street, the pedestrian signal will be activated immediately unless a vehicle or person has already activated the signal to cross the primary street.

    Our students also need to understand what the pedestrian signal means even if they can't see it. People have time to cross if they start when the pedestrian signal is white or says "walk." When the pedestrian signal is flashing red, it means that pedestrians don't have time to start a crossing, but those who had started when the pedestrian signal was white still have enough time to complete their crossing. Solid red means that the signal for the vehicles is about to (or already has) changed to yellow or red, and pedestrians should already have completed their crossing. In suburban Maryland the pedestrian walk signals are solid white but in Washington DC, solid white pedestrian signals seem to mean that cars do not turn into the pedestrian's path, whereas flashing white pedestrian signals mean that the pedestrian should beware of turning cars.

    We learned from our speakers that in Maryland, virtually all of the signals maintained by the state outside of towns and cities are actuated, and about 98% of those in Prince George's County are actuated. In cities and towns, however, most signals are fixed-time.

    During the discussion, after we understood how the actuation can affect pedestrians' crossings, we realized how important it is to teach our students to recognize whether the parallel street is actuated, and to use the pedestrian button if it is. Those of us who teach primarily in cities probably need to take our students to some actuated intersections so they can learn to recognize them and know what to do.

    How can we tell if an intersection is actuated?
    Our speakers told us three ways that we can recognize whether a signal is actuated in their jurisdictions (NOTE: There is updated, more complete information at "Common Features to Recognize Actuation"):

    1) If there is a pedestrian button for crossing a certain street, the parallel street is actuated. On the state streets, however, since most traffic signals are actuated but only a third have pedestrian signals, apparently the absence of a pedestrian button does not mean it is not actuated. For example, I have seen intersections where people cross along numbered roads in Crofton (Anne Arundel County, Maryland) that are definitely actuated but which have no pedestrian signals or buttons. At these intersections, pedestrians (whether sighted or blind) cannot be certain they will have enough time to cross the street, and there is no way for them to prolong the light long enough to cross.
    2) If there are any lines in the street where the wires have been placed to detect the presence of vehicles, the lanes that those lines are in are actuated (however, the signal may revert to fixed-time if there is damage, for example if the wires are cut with construction).
    3) Watch or listen to the cycles of the traffic signal. If the times of certain phases in the signal vary or if certain phases in the cycle are sometimes skipped, it is actuated. Note, however, that during busy times of the day, actuated signals will appear to be fixed-time because the heavy presence of cars will activate each phase of the signal and keep the light green to its maximum time.

    Some intersections are semi-actuated, which means that only one street is actuated. Other intersections are fully actuated.

    At semi-actuated intersections, how do we know which street is secondary and why should we care?

    Our speakers explained that when the intersection is semi-actuated, it is the secondary street that is actuated. They said that in their jurisdictions you can distinguish the secondary street from the primary street because the secondary street (the one that is actuated) is the street with the fewer lanes.

    Thus if an intersection is semi-actuated, regardless of the layout, the street that you should not cross without first pushing the pedestrian button is the street with the most lanes because it is the primary street (meaning that your parallel street is the one that is actuated). The street that can be crossed safely without pushing the pedestrian button will be the street that has the fewest lanes (the secondary street).

    This is very important for our students and us to know so that we can determine whether we need to find and push the pedestrian button before crossing. For example, at our meeting I showed a video of myself crossing blindfolded at a T-intersection. My parallel street was the street that went through the intersection (the "top of the T") so I assumed that it was the primary street. I thought, therefore, that it was not actuated, so I crossed without pressing the pedestrian button. To my surprise, the light changed to red before I reached the other side. What I hadn't realize is that even though the parallel street was the street that went through the intersection, it was the secondary street because it was narrower than the street I was crossing. That means it was the street that was actuated, and I should therefore have found and used the pedestrian button before crossing parallel to it.

    Audible Pedestrian Signals (APS)

    Our speakers explained that in Maryland it normally costs a minimum of $85,000 to install a traffic signal system at one intersection, and it costs approximately $200 to install an audible pedestrian signal (APS). Cost, therefore, is not usually a consideration when deciding whether to install an APS.

    Each jurisdiction in the United States has its own policy regarding APS's. Some towns have audible signals for each of their traffic signals, and other jurisdictions do not install any APS's.

    Prince Georges County's Department of Public Works and Transportation has traditionally installed audible signals whenever they are requested. The state of Maryland turns down requests for APS's because, as Thomas Hicks, the Director of Office of Traffic and Safety explained in his letter of June 3, 1997, the Office of Traffic and Safety is "looking very closely at the operational and safety issues raised by such devices," partly because "the National Federation of the Blind strongly opposes any use of APS." Maryland will decide whether to install APS's at their intersections after they complete their two-year pilot study of audible signals, which should be later this year (see "Maryland's Audible Traffic Signal Pilot Study" in our Sept. 1996 newsletter). At our meeting, Gene Straub said that his Office of Traffic and Safety has not yet determined what they are looking for in their pilot study, and he expressed appreciation of our offer to work with his department to help analyze the issue.

    When calling engineering departments for their telephone numbers, I found that the city of Baltimore, home of the national headquarters of the National Federation of the Blind, also will not install APS's. The person with whom I spoke at the city's Signal Engineer department said this was because of concern about liability. He was not sure why liability was a problem but suggested that if, for example, electricity is cut off to the APS, blind people might not realize it is broken and might cross at the wrong time.

    I suggest that research needs to be done on the national level to study:

    1) if there is a need for audible information about pedestrian signals or traffic lights and if so, how it could be provided;
    2) whether the APS's actually do pose a hazard as is claimed by those who oppose their installation and if so, how those hazards can be reduced or eliminated;
    3) what criteria could be used as effective warrants for the placement of audible signals; and
    4) what features are desirable or undesirable in audible signals, and which manufacturers produce APS's that have those desirable features.

    The Access Board is preparing a publication that may be helpful to entities such as the Maryland State Highway Administration that are trying to establish policies. It has commissioned O&Mer Dr. Beezy Bentzen to help them prepare a brief publication giving guidance to traffic engineers and interested others on the rationale for, and types and sources of, audible pedestrian signals (see page 10, "Access Board Projects" #3.

    Utilizing traffic engineering departments

    One concern of visually impaired people who travel extensively in unfamiliar places, as well as O&Mers who often have to analyze new intersections, is the difficulty in determining whether an intersection is actuated and whether the pedestrian button needs to be used there, and whether it is even feasible for pedestrians, particularly blind pedestrians, to cross there safely. For a wonderful description of the problems and frustrations that these issues pose for blind people who travel extensively to new environments, see Mary Terlau's "Actuated Traffic Signals" in our May 1997 newsletter [copied below]. These travelers must sometimes spend inordinate amounts of time analyzing new intersections, and still there are some intersections where they can't be sure they have analyzed it correctly. Sometimes they have to turn back or find alternate routes because the route they'd planned involves crossing streets where it is not possible for them to cross safely.

    At our meeting, our speakers were asked if it would be feasible for blind travelers and O&Mers to call engineering departments to find out what kind of traffic control is at the intersections where they plan to go (for example, whether there is a traffic signal there and if not, where is the nearest intersection with a traffic light; whether the signal is actuated; whether there is a pedestrian button and if so, where it is, etc.). Both speakers agreed that if the callers give them time to respond (usually several days), they and their office would be willing and able to provide that information.

    They said that traffic engineers are prepared to talk with people in the community in language that they can understand, so that it shouldn't be necessary for the caller to "learn the lingo" to speak with the engineers. However I strongly encourage people to learn some of the language because when I have called traffic engineers for information about intersections, I have sometimes had difficulty understanding their answers without asking them to stop and define the terms they are using.

    Our speakers gave us some of the terminology used for traffic signals and their patterns. They knew of no book or pamphlet which introduces the lay person to the traffic engineer's terms and explains traffic control issues, but there is a thick engineer's handbook, Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Streets and Highways, which can be bought from the Superintendent of Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington DC 20402. Chapters include "Signs, Introduction & General Standards;" "Signals;" "Islands;" "Construction & Maintenance," etc.

    This handbook is updated every ten years, and is due to be updated next year. National O&M leaders such as Lukas Franck (Chair of AER's O&M Division's Environmental Committee), Beezy Bentzen (past chair of that committee who has done extensive research on issues of environmental accessibility), and yours truly (Dona Sauerburger, Chair-Elect of AER O&M Division) hope that the handbook will include guidelines to help engineers make decisions about intersection accessibility issues. For example, it would be very helpful if the handbook provided information to help city planners and traffic engineers to design intersections that are pedestrian-friendly for all people including blind travelers, and if it established warrants for where APS's should be installed; outlined what features APS's should ideally have; and gave resources of where such APS's can be procured. Hopefully at our next WOMA meeting we can discuss some of these issues when we discuss street-crossing strategies and problems.

    Maryland's Audible Traffic Signal Pilot Study
    by Debbie Grubb
    September 1996 Newsletter (Dona Sauerburger, Editor)
    Metropolitan Washington Orientation and Mobility Association (WOMA)

    I well remember once waiting with a colleague to cross at a busy Baltimore intersection. She said to me, "It's OK to cross now, we've got the walk light." I knew suddenly that I and other blind and visually impaired citizens of Maryland were not considered by the individuals who work in Maryland's Office of Traffic and Safety. Information that these experienced people understood was essential for sighted pedestrians to make safe crossings in certain busy intersections was not made available to us. At that moment I knew that audible pedestrian signals were not just some technological toy or gimmick, but the conduit of information that was essential for all pedestrians to execute the safest possible street crossings, but information which was otherwise accessible only for those pedestrians who are sighted.

    In February, 1991, I and two other representatives from the American Council of the Blind of Maryland, Mr. M. Eugene Spurrier and Ms. Mary Otten, met with the Architectural Barriers Committee of the Baltimore County Commission on Disabilities to discuss this barrier to safe access to Maryland's streets and highways for blind and visually impaired people. Three representatives of the O&M Department of the Maryland School for the Blind also attended this meeting to express their agreement with our stand on this issue.

    We explained that audible pedestrian traffic signals are essential components in the system of traffic control for the following reasons:

    1.The ordinance allowing motorists to turn right on red makes it impossible for the blind pedestrian to know exactly when the traffic light initiates the pedestrian cycle. Since the cycle at many intersections allows enough time to cross only if pedestrians start to cross early in the cycle, the time required for the blind pedestrian to realize that the pedestrian signal has started is critical.
    2. Under current conditions, in order for a blind pedestrian to be as sure as possible that a traffic signal is in his/her favor, it is necessary to hear the auditory cues provided by the sound of moving and idling traffic on both streets of the intersection. In the absence of such traffic or when traffic is moving on the street on which pedestrians have the walk light, it is impossible for the blind person to ever be completely certain that it is safe to cross.

    We offered the following criteria to determine whether or not an intersection would be a viable candidate for these signals:

    1. Could installation of an audible signal significantly enhance the safety of blind or visually impaired pedestrians?
    2. What is the traffic pattern? Is there a busy street intersecting with a very quiet street, making it difficult for persons who cannot see the traffic signal to tell when the light is in their favor?
    3. Is the intersection a very busy one, with left and right turn only arrows and/or a great volume of traffic, some of which turns left or right on red, complicating the task of listening for the traffic pattern?
    4. Is the intersection a multi-street one, with traffic entering at odd angles, complicating the pedestrian's task of listening for the traffic pattern?
    5. Is the intersection located where there would be an advantage gained by a blind person if there were an audible signal installed there?
    6. Would the intersection enhance the visually impaired pedestrian's access to places of business, shopping centers, etc?
    7. Is the intersection relatively near public transportation and does it have at least reasonable accessibility via sidewalk?

    Months went by and the Chair of the Architectural Barriers Committee never presented our issue before the Commission. I asked the Maryland Advisory Council for Individuals with Disabilities to draft a letter to the Commission explaining the necessity of their taking a stand on this vital safety issue. The correspondence from the Advisory Council was received in a very unfavorable light and the Chair of the Advisory Council was accused of going beyond the boundaries of the organization's authority by advising a county entity. I was informed that the Baltimore County Commission on Disabilities would do nothing concerning audible pedestrian signals in Maryland because this was a State and not a County problem. I found this difficult to understand since Montgomery County already had an audible pedestrian signals program in place whereby specific intersections were outfitted with audible pedestrian traffic signals upon a valid request.

    In March of 1992, I arranged a meeting with representatives of the Maryland Office of Traffic and Safety, The Montgomery County Office of Traffic and Safety, the American Council of the Blind of Maryland and the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) of Maryland.

    The representatives of the NFB of Maryland presented the following precepts as outlined in an article published in the organization's national magazine, The Braille Monitor: [NOTE (2006): I was unable to find this article, but several others that explain the NFB philosophy regarding accessible accommodations are in The Braille Monitor's issues June 1991 and July 1990.]

    1. These signals are bad for community relations because of the sound they emit.
    2. They reinforce attitudinal barriers that blind people are inferior to sighted people.
    3. Travel skills with the long white cane are all that are necessary to execute a safe street crossing.
    4. The signals are dangerous because once a blind person becomes dependent upon them, he/she loses the confidence to cross a street without their aid.

    The representatives of the ACB of Maryland presented the following:

    1. The ACB Resolution of July, 1991, regarding audible pedestrian signals.
    2. "Evaluation of Audible Pedestrian Traffic Signals," by San Diego Association of Governments, December, 1988. Although this study was completed financed by the federal government, it does not mean that the government holds the opinions outlined in the report.
    3. City of San Diego California Council Policy Regarding Audible Traffic Signals for the Blind, Intersection Evaluation Procedure.

    A review of the quotes taken from the book cited above show:
    1. Techniques used by blind people to make safe street crossings are enhanced by audible pedestrian signals.
    2. Using the audible pedestrian signals is simply one more tool for the blind person with mobility experience.
    3. One to two lessons are sufficient to teach the blind person with mobility experience to use the audible pedestrian signals.
    4. Audible pedestrian signals help pedestrians at irregular intersections, giving them control of the traffic situations in which they find themselves.
    5. The audible signals are helpful at intersections with irregular traffic flow, which causes a lack of auditory cues for the visually impaired pedestrian.
    6. Audible traffic signals serve as reminders about the traffic flow to all citizens--especially the elderly; children; retarded citizens; and people with vision problems that make it difficult for them to see walk signs in the glare of the sun or in the darkness of night.
    7. Audible signals are quite common in Japan and in many European countries. Out of the 71 cities in the United States and Canada studied in this report, 52 of them have audible signals. Cities in California such as: Las Angeles, Oakland, San Diego, Santa Monica, San Francisco, Sacramento, San Jose, Palm Springs and Beverly Hills are proud of their audible signals and plan to install more to assist their citizens and guests. There are approximately 25 cities in the State of California alone that have these signals. Oakland California calls itself "The Accessible City" and plans to replace all of its signals with audible ones in the future. The city leaders feel that the issue of audible signals is much broader than their ability to help visually impaired people; they believe that they are beneficial to all people but in particular to the special interest groups listed above in #6.

    Mary Otten was the only blind person in the group who had actually used the signals. Her comments follow:

    "In the autumn of 1989, I had occasion, in connection with my job, to be in Salt Lake City for almost a month. I knew that there were audible signals there, but was not particularly looking forward to using them. I, like many other blind people who have never used an audible traffic signal, was of the opinion that they were of no use, would be distracting and noisy and would give the sighted public the wrong impression about me, that is, that I couldn't get around the city without them. I was even somewhat defensive when a sighted co-worker pointed the signals out to me and wondered if they wouldn't be a big help. Long before the end of my stay in Salt Lake, I had to admit to him and also to myself that I was wrong. Even in a city like Salt lake, where the intersections are "easy" to deal with" (no left turn arrows, 5 or 6 street mazes etc) the signals were helpful. I also found, much to my surprise, that the sighted population's attitude was openly positive as regards the signals. I had several people approach me and ask me how I liked their audio signals. They spoke with pride, saying that they were glad their city had installed the signals in the busiest downtown intersections, and not once did anyone ask or even hint to me that they feared for my safety while crossing intersections where audible signals had not been installed. No one complained about the noise. Indeed, the Salt Lake City signals are on a time clock, which turns them off very late at night and reactivates them in the morning."

    I asked all the sighted people attending the meeting if they use walk-don't walk signs. All of them stated that they used them at every opportunity. I then asked if anyone of them looked down on colleagues who use this aid provided by traffic engineers. There was silence. It was determined that a pilot program should be initiated by the Maryland Office of Traffic and Safety.

    After three years of phone and written correspondence and the presentation of much information to that office concerning audible and tactile aids for blind and visually impaired pedestrians, a pilot program was initiated in August of 1995 at the intersections of York Road and Seminary Avenue, York and Margate/Bellona and York and Ridgely. The signals emit a chirp sound for the North-South street and a cuckoo sound for the East-West street. The call buttons are outfitted with signs that spell out the street names in both Braille and raised print lettering and there are tactile arrows pointing to the crosswalk.

    All who have used these signals find them extremely helpful because there is now no longer any guessing as to when the walk sign is on. As a result, the pedestrian can concentrate on other sound cues both before committing to make the crossing and during the actual process of making the crossing.

    There is one problem with the system as it is now set up in this pilot. It is impossible to place the poles that house the pedestrian call buttons in a standard location because of the configuration of streets and sidewalks. This often makes finding the pedestrian call button a trying experience. It is essential to have either a tactile or audible system in place that will make easy access to the button possible. We have asked that audible call buttons be installed at the pilot site.

    Feel free to send your comments about the pilot program site or other audible pedestrian signals you have observed to:

    Mr. Darrell Wiles, Assistant District Engineer of Traffic, The Maryland Office of Traffic and Safety; 2323 W. Joppa Road; Brooklandville, Maryland 21022.

    Actuated Traffic Signals
    By Mary T. (Terrie) Terlau, Ph.D.

    May 1997 Newsletter (Dona Sauerburger, Editor)
    Metropolitan Washington Orientation and Mobility Association (WOMA)

    [Ed: "Back in my day" when I started teaching O&M, all traffic signals were fixed-time. That is, the timing of the cycle was the same regardless of the traffic. The environment today is drastically different; most signals except in cities are "actuated" or "semi-actuated," which means they change to green in response to the presence of vehicles, and stay green only long enough for those vehicles to cross the intersection. To assure enough time to complete their crossing at these intersections, pedestrians must push the pedestrian button.

    But I have discovered how complex some of these intersections can be, and how clever travelers who can't see the pedestrian signal must be in order to understand and master them. It isn't always easy to recognize whether a pedestrian button should be pushed before crossing, nor in which cycle the pedestrian signal has been activated when the button is pushed. And I didn't realize until recently how critical it is to our students' safety that we understand the principles of these complex systems, and teach them to our students.

    For this reason, WOMA plans to have a discussion with traffic engineers at its fall meeting, and this article by Dr. Terrie Terlau explains why this issue is so important to the travelers we teach. Terrie is from Lexington, Kentucky, and is a licensed counseling psychologist specializing in women's issues and women's trauma.]

    I am writing to offer a blind traveler's perspective on actuated traffic signals. I wish to underscore the life and death importance of this issue, to emphasize the need for education of both O&M instructors and blind travelers, and to strongly suggest that, no mat-ter how skilled blind travelers can become at dealing with these situations, the only viable long term solution involves equal information access (for example, audible signals). Actuated traffic signals make me work very hard mentally, add a level of uncertainty, complexity, and unpredictability to my travel plans and, regardless of how skilled I may be at figuring out the resulting traffic patterns, increase the risk to my safety in travel. In a word, they add a major amount of stress to my daily life.

    When I was originally taught to cross streets in 1969, we had downtown fixed time traffic lights. That is all there was; that was the only model that I knew. As I began to do serious walking in a suburban, car oriented environment in the late 80s, I realized that I was woefully lacking in my understanding of what was going on with the traffic. For example, I became acutely aware that on some busy suburban streets, the in bound and out bound traffic streams did not stop and start on the same time cycle. It scared me right down to my toenails to realize (experientially) that I could be caught in the middle of a 4 lane suburban road and that the inbound traffic could be allowed to whiz in front of me while the outbound traffic (behind me) could still be placidly waiting for its light to change.

    I was very fortunate to have a knowledgeable O&M instructor in my city from whom I obtained some new information about traffic and with whom I obtained some experiential practice on interpreting new, complex traffic light patterns.

    However, the changes in the nature of many traffic lights have had a great deal of impact on my life. I travel flexibly (that is, I go where I need to go as I need to go there) and I often do not have detailed advanced information, particularly about the nature of the traffic lights involved. While some information about the environment can be obtained from passers by, bus drivers, etc., I can not obtain information about the nature of a traffic light because, of course, people have no clue.

    I no longer make the assumption that I have a traditional fixed time traffic light when I am not in the immediate downtown area. I assume that I will have to stand, listen to, and analyze the traffic pat-terns at lights that I have not used previously and I do not make the assumption that I will be able to use such lights safely. I always maintain an alternative plan of action for instances where I estimate that I can not read the traffic patterns accurately.

    Seeking assistance in my city at such lights is usually a moot point as pedestrians are rare in these situations. Whenever I can, I find out from reliable sources (such as known bus drivers) whether the major street has a grass median. If it does not, I know that I will be far less likely to trust my read of the traffic pattern. I have spent more than a little time on raised grass medians re figuring out a traffic pattern which, from the other side of the street, I had thought I understood. If the major street lacks an obvious grass median, I will be far less likely to trust my read and I will be more likely to use an alternative travel plan, usually one involving a fairly high expenditure of time or money.

    For those of us who travel flexibly and utilize a variety of traffic lights, it is imperative to have as full an understanding as possible of what can be going on with the lights. O&M curricula must incorporate theory and practice relative to these situations. It is also imperative for us to have practice in hearing and analyzing the traffic patterns. All of us--blind persons and O&M instructors under blindfold need to spend time standing on these corners and learning how well we can analyze these situations through hearing.

    In addition, I believe that all blind people who are going to be out there crossing streets need to be able to judge when they can trust their read of a traffic light and when they can not; what their limits are. There are some traffic light situations that I can not analyze, some that I can, and if I do not have a pretty good yardstick for measuring when I am reading accurately and when I am not, I could be dead. I have what I hope is a reasonable estimate of my limits in analyzing these traffic patterns. I base my estimate of my limits on having had the experience of an O&M instructor giving me feedback about my accuracy. This is the kind of experiential training that we need in order to safely deal with these realities. I can not overestimate how important I think it is for the O&M profession to teach itself and blind persons how to understand the full variety of traffic light situations, how to analyze the meaning of these traffic patterns and how to decide on limits and safety issues.

    However, being able to successfully figure out such complex traffic patterns requires high spatial abilities, unimpaired hearing, and strong auditory discrimination. I fear that in this day and age of actuated traffic lights, fuller mobility will be the prerogative of only a minority of blind persons who were genetically and environmentally supported for the development of high spatial and auditory ability.

    The real solution to this problem is in making such traffic signals useable by blind persons. We must work toward informational access for these situations audible signals, or whatever it takes. Let's learn to use the language of the traffic engineer, a language in which I am not fluent, so that we can work together, talk about these issues, and come up with viable accessibility strategies.

    Let's keep talking and learning about this and working toward accessible signals for these situations. We blind people will always need to learn how to listen to and interpret traffic patterns at actuated traffic lights. But maybe in twenty years or even ten, these days -- when the only way for us blind persons to get a clue as to whether we have a safe and legal walk signal at some intersections is to stand on median strips and draw maps of traffic patterns in our heads -- will be a relic of the past.

    Back to Home page