October 23, 2002
I am an orientation & mobility instructor (cane travel teacher) for the state of
Washington, Department of Services for the Blind.
I would like to comment on the following pedestrian issues: 1). Audible signals
2). Location of signal mechanism boxes 3). Sidewalks 4). Curb ramps and tactile
warnings 5). The importance of consistency in whatever devices are chosen
1). Regarding audible signals: I am neither for nor against audible signals, as
my job is to teach blind people to adapt to the environment that has been put
before them. However, I would like to share with you my observations while
working with students in traffic situations.
It is vitally important that you understand audible signals will not be a
"cure-all" for safe travel. I have repeatedly personally observed my students,
who had been consistently crossing streets safely without audible signals,
suddenly jump into the street on a red light when the audible sound goes off,
seemingly shocking them off the curb like a cattle prod. All reasoning and
responsibility for one's own safety goes down the tubes for many of these people
when the signal starts beeping. I spend more time training people how to safely
cross with an audible signal than I spend teaching how to cross without the
sound because it is more difficult to impress on them the importance of making
sure they are facing the direction indicated by the sound. It is even more
difficult to teach audible signal crossers the importance of continuing to
listen to their environment when the information to "go" is handed to them on a
silver platter. Sighted people can scan the area and see the cell-phone driver,
the drunk driver, and those who are about to run a red light. Blind people
listen for these sounds and know when to abandon the crossing if such a
situation arises. Audible signals cause a false sense of security which require
additional hours of my time to convince my students to use as secondary
information rather than primary information.
I have had students from both consumer groups privately support audible signals;
And I have had students from both consumer groups privately oppose them.
Generally speaking, my beginning students love them; My intermediate and
advanced students hate them. Please note that most of my beginning students are
not safe travelers and should not be crossing streets
independently with or without the aid of an audible sound.
There are several elements required for teaching safe street crossing. Audible
signals will not prevent a person from veering into the parallel street (in fact
I have observed people who normally cross straight veer severely in the
confusion of the unexpected noise. In order to safely cross streets blind people
must know how to: a). Line up facing the correct direction - this is not as easy
as it may seem. Traffic sounds help the person know which street is being
crossed. (A voice that says, "It is okay to cross 7th Street" will not help an
inexperienced traveler identify which street is 7th. Orientation training will
still be required for most individuals).
b). Cross in a straight path - the sound of the parallel traffic is how a person
with no vision stays inside the crosswalk. It is vitally important to be able to
hear the parallel traffic while crossing busy streets. Orientation & mobility
training will still be required to ensure straight crossings.
c). Timing the beginning of the crossing. - This is the one and only use for
d). Be aware of right turners, people running red lights, and general unsafe
crossing conditions regardless of what the traffic signal says.
If audible signals become mandated, it would be helpful (and safer) to require
consistency in the type of information relayed, the method to activate, and the
type of noise emitted from them. An audible signal in Richmond, Virginia should
look, sound, and act the same as an audible signal in Vancouver, Washington.
Furthermore, should such signals become federally mandated it would be
impossible to outfit every signal in the nation immediately. Therefore, I
recommend that carefully selected signals are the first to become outfitted with
the audible equipment. Contrary to what you may assume, the busiest
intersections are the places where audible signals are the least necessary
because the constant flow of traffic is the very thing that safely guides blind
people across the street. The first places to receive audible signals should be
low traffic intersections and T-intersections.
2). In my city, Vancouver, WA, I have noticed more and more recent dangerous
positioning of new signal mechanics boxes. These, head-high boxes made of hard
metal are approximately 1-1/2 feet wide by 3 feet tall with pointed edges. They
are stuck to the sides of signal poles and cannot be detected by a cane. Persons
standing approximately 4' 9" to 6' tall will painfully locate these boxes with
their heads. I would like to request enforcement of the existing ADA standards
on height requirements of protruding items and reiterate the need for nationwide
consistency in all pedestrian travel matters.
3). Any pedestrian, whether blind or sighted, is at great risk when walking
along a heavily-traveled, high-speed road with nothing but a painted white line
between him or herself and the vehicles. Many of the roads in my city do not
have more than a couple of inches in which to walk. My students would be safer
crossing freeways than they are walking on these streets without sidewalks, yet
they have no choice but to travel in these extremely unsafe conditions because
our city apparently cannot afford to put in sidewalks. Sidewalks in cities
should be the number one pedestrian safety issue. Audible signals will not be of
any help to people who get killed on their way to the intersection.
4). In regards to curb ramps and tactile warnings I would like to state the
importance of keeping a minimum downgrade which, when combined with other clues
such as the flat feel of the gutter combined with the upgraded beginning of the
camber of the road and the change from cement to asphalt, is how blind people
identify they are entering a street. My city has completely eliminated several
ramps in favor of a completely flat surface while filling in the asphalt with
colored concrete crosswalks. National guidelines as to minimum curb grade should
be enforced as diligently as the maximum grade currently is being monitored.
Tactile warnings may help in certain situations. But I fear that over-use and
inappropriate use of tactile warning bumps will render them ineffective. People
are starting to use tactile warning bumps to help guide blind people in a
certain direction which is completely different from the original intent that
they mean "danger, do not cross." I would also like to express my concern about
the use of tactile bumps in place of curb ramps during inclement weather. Proper
curb ramps can still be detected through snow, heavy leaves, dirt, and worn down
conditions caused by time. I doubt that tactile bumps will furnish the necessary
information during inclement weather. I am positive that tactile bumps will
require upkeep that will put blind people at the mercy of budgets of their city.
5). Whatever the board decides on these issues I beg you to apply a
standard of consistency throughout the nation. I train people in a way
that enables them to use their independent travel skills anywhere they travel
without the necessity of additional training. If every city or state is allowed
to make up their own rules for audible signals or types of curb cuts, or styles
and uses of tactile tiles, blind people will not be able to confidently rely on
their knowledge of travel environments when entering new locations. Therefore, I
urge you to please require, and enforce, nationwide consistency in regards to
the board's decisions on all of the above
Orientation & Mobility Specialist / Rehabilitation Teacher
DEPT. OF SVCS FOR THE BLIND