JVIB Copyright 2005 American Foundation for the Blind. All rights reserved.
File created June 6, 2009. This is not the final version of record. The following article was published in the Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, October 2005 Volume 99 Number 10, (Print edition pages 659-663). The final version of record can be found at http://www.jvib.org.
Practice Report -- JVIB, October 2005

Street Crossings: Analyzing Risks, Developing Strategies, and Making Decisions

Dona Sauerburger

This report proposes an approach to teaching street crossing to students who are visually impaired that considers the risks, ambiguity, and complexity of today's intersections. Thirty or 40 years ago, street crossing was a straightforward task for travelers with visual impairments (that is, those who are blind or have low vision). The intersections were predictable, and there were standard, highly successful procedures using reliable vehicular sounds for crossing them safely (Jacobson, 1993; LaGrow & Weessies, 1994). Of course, there was risk in crossing, as there is risk in everything we do, but the risk was manageable and was considered acceptable if the proper procedures were followed.

Today, the task of crossing streets is complex. Intersections and traffic signals are unpredictable (Barlow, Franck, Bentzen, & Sauerburger, 2001), right-turn-on-red and other features require adaptations to the standard street-crossing procedure (Sauerburger, 1998), cars are quieter, and vehicular sounds are no longer reliably present (Barlow, Bentzen, & Tabor, 2003; Bentzen, Barlow, & Franck, 2000; Carroll & Bentzen, 1999; Sauerburger, 1989, 1995, 1999). The population of independent travelers with visual impairments who cross streets now includes people with additional considerations (such as elderly people; children; and people with cognitive, mobility, and/or hearing disabilities in addition to visual impairment) that require adaptations to the standard street-crossing techniques,.

As a result, the questions of how and where to cross and even whether it is possible to cross a given street safely come up more and more frequently. The ambiguity and complexity in street crossing today requires an approach to teaching street crossing that addresses such questions. This report presents an approach that seems to address these issues satisfactorily.

In the approach presented here, after the student has learned all the requisite street-crossing concepts and skills, the following procedure is used to negotiate street crossings:
1. Analyze the situation (geometry and traffic control).
2. Determine how and when to cross if it is possible to do so (choose crossing strategy).
3. Determine the risks of crossing with the chosen strategy.
4. Reduce risks as much as possible.
5. Decide if the risks are acceptable.
6. Consider alternatives if the risks are not acceptable.

Steps 1 and 2 are no different from what has been taught for decades (Jacobson, 1993; LaGrow & Weessies, 1994). Where this approach to teaching street crossings diverges is in Steps 3-6, so these steps are addressed in more detail.

Determine the risks of crossing
In this step, the orientation and mobility (O&M) instructor and student consider what may go wrong during the crossing--they assess what kinds of risks exist. At all intersections, the increasing number of quiet cars available in the marketplace increases the likelihood that vehicles will approach or be present without being sufficiently audible. Some of the risks that are typical for different types of intersections are listed next.

Reduce risks as much as possible

Once the potential dangers have been identified, the student and instructor brainstorm to come up with strategies to reduce the risks. Some ideas are listed here. Notice that strategies that reduce the risk of one danger sometimes increase the risk of other dangers. When planning the risk-reducing strategies to be used, instructors need to consider which dangers are more risky and which dangers have risks that can be increased in order to reduce the risk of other dangers.

Sometimes, when individuals who are visually impaired consider the risks of crossing as planned, they realize that their original crossing strategy may be riskier than another, and they change crossing strategies. For example, one man who planned to cross facing north at a signalized intersection with the parallel street on his right decided to cross with the first surge of the parallel traffic. However, the first movement of traffic was the northbound traffic, which was allowed to go straight or turn left into his crosswalk. When he realized that crossing with the parallel traffic meant that he would cross when left-turning traffic had the legal right of way and the drivers were aggressively crossing his path, he decided to wait and cross when the parallel traffic in the lanes nearest to him began to move. This strategy (crossing with traffic in the nearest parallel lanes) is often effective for eliminating the danger of crossing against left-turning traffic, which has the legal right-of-way (Frieswyk, 2005).

A factor that is not listed among the following strategies but is important to consider is that travelers who have functional vision can reduce the risks significantly by scanning appropriately before and during the crossing (Sauerburger, 2003).

Strategies for reducing risks at signalized intersections Strategies for crossing streets with stop signs Strategies at uncontrolled crossings Decide if the risks are acceptable

Once the risks are identified and strategies for reducing them are considered, the O&M instructor should ask the student (or his or her guardian, if appropriate) if the risk is acceptable for crossing when using the strategies to reduce the risk. It is important, when making the decision to cross, that the student be familiar with alternatives (see the next section). Sometimes travelers who are visually impaired who consider the risks to be acceptable will prefer alternatives that are less risky if they are aware of them.

Each person's acceptance of risk is individual and depends on such factors as the person's values, level of risk taking, and motivation. Although the decision of whether to accept the risk of crossing belongs to the student or his or her guardian, the O&M instructor is responsible for ensuring that the decision maker (the student or guardian) is aware of and fully understands the risks.

Consider alternatives

It is essential that the student is prepared and familiar with alternatives for situations in which the risk is not acceptable. No visually impaired traveler who has completed an O&M program should ever have to think, "I have no choice but to take the risk."

Not all of the following alternatives will be possible at every intersection, but there is always at least one alternative that is feasible, so that no visually impaired person ever has to make any crossing that has more risk than is acceptable. The alternatives for crossing alone at a given intersection are these: Conclusion

These guidelines are intended to help O&M specialists and their students overcome the challenges of street crossings at today's complex intersections. This approach has been successful in addressing concerns encountered in teaching a myriad of crossing situations to a variety of travelers of all ages, including those with additional disabilities.


Barlow, J. M., Franck, L., Bentzen, B. L., & Sauerburger, D. (2001). Pedestrian clearance intervals at modern intersections: Implications for the safety of pedestrians who are visually impaired. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 95, 663-667.

Barlow, J. M., Bentzen, B. L., & Tabor, L. (2003). Accessible pedestrian signals: Synthesis and guide to best practice. Berlin, MA: Accessible Design for the Blind.

Bentzen, B. L., Barlow, J. M., & Franck, L. (2000). Addressing barriers to blind pedestrians at signalized intersections. ITE Journal, 70(9), 32-35.

Carroll, J., & Bentzen, B. L. (1999). American Council of the Blind survey of intersection accessibility. The Braille Forum, 38, 11-15.

Frieswyk, J. (2005). Crossing strategy for modern signalized intersections. AER Orientation and Mobility Division Newsletter, 11(2), 16-17.

Jacobson, W. H. (1993). The art and science of teaching orientation and mobility to persons with visual impairments. New York: AFB Press.

LaGrow, S. J., & Weessies, M. J. (1994). Orientation and mobility: Techniques for independence. Palmerston North, New Zealand: Dunmore Press.

Sauerburger, D. (1989). To cross or not to cross: Objective timing methods of assessing street crossings without traffic controls, RE:view, 11, 153-161.

Sauerburger, D. (1995). Safety awareness for crossing streets with no traffic control. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 89, 423-431.

Sauerburger, D. (1998). Intersection design and street-crossing strategies for blind pedestrians: Then and now [Videotape]. Gambrills, MD: Author.

Sauerburger, D. (1999). Developing criteria and judgment of safety for crossing streets with gaps in traffic. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 93, 447-450.

Sauerburger, D. (2003). Scanning for cars. AER Orientation and Mobility Division Newsletter, 9(2), 26.

Dona Sauerburger, COMS, orientation and mobility specialist in private practice, 1606 Huntcliff Way, Gambrills, MD 21054; e-mail: Dona@Sauerburger.org.

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