Accessible Pedestrian Signals Progress and Regress
By Dona Sauerburger, COMS
July 1999 Newsletter
Metropolitan Washington Orientation and Mobility Association (WOMA)
In the 1940's, when our profession was first developed, it was relatively easy for blind people to use traffic sounds to know when the signal was green for the traffic in the street next to them. At that time, pedestrians all crossed when the signal was green for the street beside them.
Fifty years later, with actuation at most suburban intersections and complex traffic patterns and signals, it has become sufficiently confusing to all pedestrians that traffic engineers often install pedestrian signals to help them know when it's their turn to cross. In addition, because pedestrians (both sighted and blind) sometimes don't have enough time to cross at actuated signals, engineers installed pedestrian buttons that must be pushed before crossing to ensure enough time to cross.
At the same time, it has become increasingly difficult for blind people to get all the information they need from the traffic sounds because of quieter cars, wider streets, noise pollution that raises the level of ambient sound, and the complexity of some signals. As a result, there are many situations today where the sound of traffic doesn't provide enough information for blind people to know when pedestrians are supposed to cross.
Accessible pedestrian signals (APS) can provide this information, just as visual pedestrian signals do for sighted pedestrians.
During the last several decades, APS technology has improved. Many systems are now available with few or none of the drawbacks of earlier technology (such as confusion about which street the signal is for, and sound levels too soft to be heard or so loud it is distracting to the pedestrian and obnoxious to the community).
Some of the newer models have advantages such as a locator tone which helps all pedestrians become aware that there is a pedestrian button that must be pushed and helps blind pedestrians find it; sound levels that vary with ambient noise; tactile graphs that explain features of the street such as width and the presence of median strips; and information such as the name of the street being crossed and which street that signal is for. Some even provide directional information about where the upcurb is on the other side of the crosswalk. This information is, in some situations, difficult or impossible to get using only traffic sounds and other environmental cues.
Knowledge about these new technologies and the need for them is important to share among O&M specialists, visually impaired pedestrians, and traffic engineers and planners.
Members of AER's Division 9 Environmental Access Committee, particularly Lukas Franck (Chair), Beezy Bentzen, and Janet Barlow, have been working hard to spread this knowledge.
For example, last spring they set up APS displays for O&M specialists and consumers at the Southeastern O&M Association in Atlanta. This summer, they demonstrated APS technology or shared information at the conventions of the American Council of the Blind (ACB) and the National Federation of the Blind (NFB).
They also shared information with various organizations of traffic engineers. For example, together with representatives of ACB and the Access Board, they worked many hours with the National Committee on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (NCUTCD) to develop standards and guidelines for APSs, to be published in the traffic engineers' Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices.
Those of you who are members of AER's Division 9 have been able to follow the committee's progress through the Division 9 newsletter, and can feel proud that you are supporting their efforts through your Division 9 dues.
Consumers and APS
Both the ACB and the NFB passed resolutions this summer regarding APSs. The NFB resolution will be published in the September Braille Monitor. The NFB was unable to provide us with a copy of the resolution in time for this newsletter, but apparently it is similar to NFB's 1992 resolution, which is reprinted at the end of this article [NOTE: the 1999 resolution is also listed here].
The 1992 NFB resolution reaffirmed their “long-standing policy against wholesale and routine installation of audible traffic signals” and demanded that, where audible traffic signals are considered, NFB representatives be included in the decision making. This year’s NFB resolution apparently also mentions the needs of deaf blind pedestrians in regards to APSs, and addresses the 1998 Transportation Equity Act (which states, in part, that “Safety considerations shall include the installation, where appropriate, and maintenance of audible traffic signals and audible signs at street crossings”).
The 1999 NFB resolution passed, but the voice vote was so close that a roll call of states was required. About 11 NFB state affiliates voted against the resolution (Maryland's NFB affiliate was not one of those which voted against it).
One of the affiliates that opposed the resolution explained that their state delegation voted against it because they had each reviewed and supported the signals that were displayed at their convention, and felt that those signals actually resolved the problems that had been raised in past and present NFB resolutions. The delegation felt that standardization of APSs to provide the features which are helpful and give orientation information, without having the negative features associated with APSs, would benefit people who are blind or visually impaired because it would provide equal access to information. The delegation agreed strongly with the resolution that the NFB should be included in the decision making process.
The ACB passed three resolutions regarding APSs, all of which are also published at the end of this article. One resolution supported the APS language approved by the NCUTCD for standards and guidelines in the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, and calls for its usage in all future installations of APS. It also continues ACB's support for the installation of APSs, and urges completion of the additional research needed to develop the necessary guidance and standards for APSs.
A second ACB resolution takes the position that whenever an APS is installed, APSs should be installed at all legs of the intersection at which pedestrian signals are provided for sighted pedestrians (except to the extent that doing so would be inconsistent with safety and access).
Maryland APS Policy and Pilot Study
In response to requests for APSs from blind pedestrians, various Maryland counties have willingly provided them. However the Maryland State Highway Administration (SHA) has consistently refused to install any APSs at their intersections.
Maryland SHA has jurisdiction at all numbered highways, such as Route 1 in College Park and in Baltimore (where it's called Belair Road); East West Highway, Georgia Avenue and Colesville in Silver Spring; and Loch Raven Boulevard and Liberty Heights in Baltimore.
Following discussions with representatives of the ACB of Maryland, Maryland SHA initiated a pilot study of APSs in 1996, according to a letter dated June 3, 1997 from Thomas Hicks, Director of Maryland SHA's Office of Traffic and Safety (see our September 1996 WOMA newsletter – “Maryland's Audible Traffic Signal Pilot Study” by Debbie Grubb, reprinted in “Traffic Signal Enlightenment”). APSs were installed at three intersections in Baltimore for the study.
Mr. Hicks wrote, "After approximately one year in which these devices were in place, comments were received from three blind and/or visually impaired citizens who live in the area. Their comments were generally positive and suggested that the devices were beneficial. Due to the small sampling of comments we agreed to expand the pilot study to include a limited number of very highly pedestrian traveled intersections in the Towson area of Baltimore County. These intersections are occasionally frequented by persons from the Maryland School for the Blind and we hope to solicit comments from them as well as to the effectiveness of these devices."
O&M staff from The Maryland School for the Blind who were available for comment for this article report that to their knowledge, Maryland SHA did not contact them about the pilot study nor seek their input, and they are not aware of any APSs at intersections other than the three that were installed the first year of the study. However apparently others became aware of the study and gave feedback because this spring, two years after the first letter was written, Mr. Hicks wrote,
"To date the majority of the comments that we have received concerning the APSs presently in place have been from members of the NFB and quite frankly none of the comments have been favorable with regard to their use."
Both letters from Mr. Hicks were in response to requests for APSs from blind individuals to enable them to cross certain intersections within SHA's jurisdiction in Prince George's County. In the first letter, dated June 3, 1997, Mr. Hicks said the request was rejected because the SHA had "adopted a go slow approach on any [APS] implementation. As you are probably aware, the National Federation of the Blind strongly opposes any use of APS while... the National Capital Area Chapter of the ACB of Maryland favors use of such devices. ... We are concerned that there are some valid and well supported differences of opinion on the effectiveness and needs of such devices, and until we complete the pilot study, which we expect to conclude sometime around the end of this year , we will refrain from further installation of these devices."
The second letter was written two years later in response to a request for an APS from Jennifer Tyndaal, who is a member of the NFB. Mr. Hicks wrote to her, "As I am sure you are aware, the NFB has numerous concerns with regard to the use of APSs. This places the Maryland State Highway Administration in a somewhat difficult position. We are essentially being asked to choose between two very sincere organizations that have valid and well supported differences of opinion on the effectiveness and need of these devices.
"In light of the above information, until we have had the chance to review/comment along with the many other concerned organizations on the proposed additions to the [Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices], and until we complete our pilot study on APS use (end of 1999), we are not in a position to install APS at any additional intersections in the State of Maryland."
Ms. Tyndaal replied June 24, 1999, saying "I am being discriminated against because of my blindness when you provide sighted pedestrians with the signal information which they can see, but which I cannot see. Without that information, I can't cross the street to get home safely from the bus stop. You have a policy of not installing accessible pedestrian signals. According to the law [cited below], public entities shall modify policies to avoid discrimination on the basis of disability."
The law cited was from title II of the ADA, 35.130(b)(7): "A public entity shall make reasonable modifications in policies, practices, or procedures when the modifications are necessary to avoid discrimination on the basis of disability, unless the public entity can demonstrate that making the modifications would fundamentally alter the nature of the service, program, or benefit."
In a report accompanying Ms. Tyndaal's request, her O&M specialist Dona Sauerburger explained that because there is infrequent parallel traffic at certain times of the day at that intersection, there are times "that Ms. Tyndaal would have to push the pedestrian button, then walk to the curb and align herself, then return to push the pedestrian button and walk back to the curb to align herself repeatedly for 20 or 30 minutes before having an opportunity to recognize that her crossing phase has started." Sighted pedestrians who push the pedestrian button have to wait no more than one minute before recognizing that their crossing phase has started.
The report also illustrated that there was no other accessible route for Ms. Tyndaal to get home from the bus stop. As this newsletter goes to print (early August), they are still waiting for a reply from Maryland SHA.
Some people claim that difficulties in crossing could all be resolved with proper training. However Ms. Tyndaal received 9 months of O&M training at Blind Industries and Services of Maryland in Baltimore, and about 50 hours of training from VVH in Silver Spring, where her instructor reports that there is insufficient information at that intersection for her to know when to cross, regardless of training.
Meanwhile, WOMA has invited Mr. Hicks or his representative to our fall meeting to explain the pilot study and the results, as the study nears the end of its fourth year. We asked them to provide information about the purpose of the study, what information it was designed to provide, how people were recruited to evaluate the APS(s) and what kinds of information and feedback were solicited, which APS(s) was or were used in the study, and what are the features of the APS(s).
If they accept our invitation; we will announce the time and place in our next newsletter. As usual, everyone is invited to attend, whether or not they are members of WOMA.
NOTE: This meeting is reported in the November 1999 WOMA newsletter article Maryland State Highway Administration: APSs and Pilot Study.
Consumer Organization Resolutions Related to Accessible Pedestrian Signals
AMERICAN COUNCIL OF THE BLIND
RESOLUTION 99 02
Takes the position that whenever an accessible pedestrian signal is installed at a signalized intersection, such a signals be installed at all legs of the intersection at which a pedestrian signal is provided, except to the extent that doing so would be inconsistent with safety and access.
WHEREAS, the American Council of the Blind has long advocated for the fulfillment of the goal of insuring that people who are blind or visually impaired have full access to information provided by pedestrian signals; and
WHEREAS, it is not uncommon for public entities, for reasons which have nothing to do with safety or access concerns, to install accessible pedestrian signals at some, but not all, of the legs of an intersection at which pedestrian crossings are provided; and
WHEREAS, this practice can lead to confusion among blind and visually impaired pedestrians as to when and where to make a safe crossing; and
WHEREAS, this practice also has the potential for increasing public entity liability;
NOW, THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED by the American Council of the Blind, in convention assembled, this 8th day of July, 1999 at the Westin, Los Angeles, California, that it is the position of this organization that whenever an accessible pedestrian signal is installed at a signalized intersection, such a signals be installed at all legs of the intersection at which a pedestrian signal is provided, except to the extent that doing so would be inconsistent with safety and access.
AMERICAN COUNCIL OF THE BLIND
RESOLUTION 99 25
Supports the accessible pedestrian signal language approved by the National Committee on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, calls for its usage in all future installations of accessible pedestrian signals, continues the support of the American Council of the Blind (ACB) for the installation of accessible pedestrian signals, and urges completion of the additional research needed to develop the necessary accessible pedestrian signal guidance and standards.
WHEREAS the Americans with Disabilities Act guarantees the right of access to information to persons with disabilities; and
WHEREAS, the American Council of the Blind has at least 25,000 members who are blind or visually impaired; and
WHEREAS the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA 21) provides that "Transportation plans and projects . . . shall include the installation, where appropriate, and maintenance of audible traffic signals and audible signs at street crossings"; and
WHEREAS many signalized intersections provide information to pedestrians with sight that is not provided to pedestrians with visual impairments; and
WHEREAS accessible pedestrian signals have been widely used for more than 15 years in countries including Austria, Australia, Canada, Czech Republic, Finland, Ireland, Japan, Sweden, and the United Kingdom; and, are considered by traffic engineers to be widely effective, not only in providing information to blind and visually impaired pedestrians, but also in decreasing general pedestrian delay and facilitating vehicular flow at signalized intersections; and
WHEREAS increasing numbers of quiet, alternatively fueled vehicles, including electric vehicles, and increasing numbers of quieter internal combustion engines, make acoustic information from traffic inconsistent, resulting in the inability of pedestrians who are blind to reliably detect the onset of the WALK interval by listening for a surge of traffic; and
WHEREAS inexpensive technologies exist to make accessible pedestrian signals which are automatically responsive to ambient sound, being very quiet at night and in low traffic situations, while still loud enough to be heard above vehicular sound in high traffic situations; and
WHEREAS the American Council of the Blind (ACB) has been actively involved with efforts to develop national guidance and standards for accessible pedestrian signals, streets and intersections, working with the U.S. Department of Transportation (U.S. DOT), U.S. Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board (Access Board), National Committee on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, Institute of Transportation Engineers, American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, Transportation Research Board, and Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired, Blinded Veterans Association and accessible pedestrian signal manufacturers; and
WHEREAS these efforts have resulted in the development of resources, such as the Access Board's Publication A 37 on Accessible Pedestrian Signals, the draft United States Department of Transportation/Access Board's "Accessible Rights of Way: A Design Manual", ACB's Pedestrian Handbook, ACB's "Recommended Street Design Guidelines for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired" and the National Committee on Uniform Traffic Control Devices Accessible Pedestrian Signal language (4E.6 4E.8); and
WHEREAS these publications represent a laudable first step toward developing standards which will advance access of persons who are blind and visually impaired to traffic signal information, and thereby also increase the awareness of traffic engineers of the needs of blind and visually impaired pedestrians; and
WHEREAS these efforts have identified specific areas where further research is needed prior to the development of additional guidance and standards; and
WHEREAS the National Cooperative Highway Research Program is charged with assisting the U.S. DOT and other transportation organizations in meeting these research needs;
THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED by the American Council of the Blind, on this 7th day of July, 1999 at the Westin Hotel, Los Angeles, California that, ACB support the accessible pedestrian signal language approved by the National Committee on Uniform Traffic Control Devices in Orlando, Florida in June, 1999 and call for its usage in all future installations of accessible pedestrian signals; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that ACB continue to actively support the installation of accessible pedestrian signals and urges the U.S. Department of Transportation, National Cooperative Highway Research Program and other transportation organizations to support the additional research needed to develop the necessary accessible pedestrian signal guidance and standards.
AMERICAN COUNCIL OF THE BLIND
RESOLUTION 99 44
Commends the Los Angeles, Department of Transportation for its installation of experimental accessible pedestrian signals at intersections near the site of the 1999 American Council of the Blind National Convention, and urges the City of Los Angeles to continue its efforts to improve access for people who are blind through additional installations, research, and standard development with regard to accessible crossing signals.
WHEREAS the City of Los Angeles installed an experimental accessible pedestrian signal at the intersection of West Century Boulevard and Concourse Way, and another such signal at the intersection of West Century Boulevard and Aviation Way to accommodate those attending the 1999 American Council of the Blind (ACB) National Convention; and
WHEREAS these accommodations allow for much safer travel in the immediate area of the Westin Hotel and the Marriott; and
WHEREAS the State of California is a leading State among these United States in its development of standards for accessible crossing signals;
NOW THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED by the American Council of the Blind, in convention assembled this 9th day of July, 1999, at the Westin Hotel, Los Angeles, California, that this organization commend the Los Angeles Department of Transportation for its sensitivity and accommodation to the ACB National Convention;
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that this organization specifically thanks Brian Gallagher, Senior Traffic Engineer, Glenn Ogura, Los Angeles Department of Transportation, as well as Mitch Pomerantz, Los Angeles Americans With Disabilities Act coordinator, for their efforts in getting the experimental accessible crossing signals installed;
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that this organization urge the City of Los Angeles to continue its efforts to improve access for people who are blind through additional installations, research, and standard development with regard to accessible crossing signals.
NATIONAL FEDERATION OF THE BLIND
WHEREAS, one of the unfortunate negative effects of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has been a renewed interest in the installation of audible traffic signals for use by blind pedestrians; and
WHEREAS, the intent of the ADA is not the wholesale redesign and reconstruction of the environment to satisfy every whim and wish of disabled persons, but only to require the essential accommodations which would permit them to live and work on terms of equality; and
WHEREAS, the ADA also grants disabled persons the right to refuse to accept specific accommodations; and
WHEREAS, long experience has repeatedly demonstrated that, with proper mobility training, blind persons can competently and safely negotiate a wide variety of traffic conditions rendering the installation of audible traffic signals an unnecessary expense; and
WHEREAS, it is particularly damaging to blind persons for audible traffic signals to be installed at intersections located near facilities serving the blind such as schools, rehabilitation centers, and workshops; and
WHEREAS, in rare instances there may exist an intersection with complicated traffic sequencing and road patterns at which an audible traffic signal might be helpful to some blind persons; and
WHEREAS, the only appropriate audible traffic signals are those which are strictly pedestrian activated and which do not interfere with the sounds of traffic; and
WHEREAS, in comprehensive traffic design as well as work on individual intersections, ADA mandates that public officials seek and include participation of blind consumers in decision making: Now, therefore,
BE IT RESOLVED by the National Federation of the Blind in Convention assembled this fourth day of July, 1992, in the City of Charlotte, North Carolina, that this organization reaffirm its long standing policy against wholesale and routine installation of audible traffic signals; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that this organization demand that, where audible traffic signals are being considered, public officials comply with the mandate of the Americans with Disabilities Act by including representatives of the National Federation of the Blind in their decision making.
NOTE: The NFB 1999 Resolution follows:
NATIONAL FEDERATION OF THE BLIND
WHEREAS, the Transportation Equity Act for the Twenty-First Century (T 21) authorizes matching federal funds for the installation of audible traffic signals throughout America; and
WHEREAS, the National Federation of the Blind is on record opposing the wholesale installation of these signals, as most recently set forth in Resolution 92-06; and
WHEREAS, good independent travel training enables the vast majority of blind people to negotiate safely and competently virtually all traffic intersections, a fact that would make wholesale installation of audible traffic signals a wasteful, unnecessary expenditure of scarce public funds; and
WHEREAS, massive deployment of audible signals will only create an unwise reliance on electronic devices by blind persons who must rely upon their own senses and skills for their own safety; and
WHEREAS, audible traffic signals can in fact make intersections more dangerous by masking the sound of traffic, which blind people rely upon to determine traffic patterns; and
WHEREAS, activation of the visual walk sign should not also be the means of activating an audible traffic signal since the interconnection of the two would make use of audible signals mandatory for everyone whenever the walk sign button is pressed; and
WHEREAS, audible traffic signals may in rare cases be helpful to some blind people at complicated intersections with con¬fusing road patterns; and
WHEREAS, the only practical and effective audible signals are those which are pedestrian-activated and do not interfere with the sound of traffic; and
WHEREAS, pedestrian-activated audible traffic signals are the only kind of signal that should ever be installed to assist blind persons and should never be installed at the demand of one or a small number of blind persons but rather only after giving blind members of the community and organizations representing the blind a full opportunity to participate in the decision-making process; and
WHEREAS, many members of the sighted public mistakenly believe that all blind people must depend on other persons or electronic devices to cross streets safely and therefore believe they are helping the blind by putting audible traffic signals in the community: Now, therefore,
BE IT RESOLVED by the National Federation of the Blind in Convention assembled this sixth day of July, 1999, in the City of Atlanta, Georgia, that this organization reaffirm its opposition to the wholesale installation of audible traffic signals by state and local governments; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that this organization call upon any governmental or other entity considering the installation of audible signals to consult extensively with elected representatives of local organizations of the blind, and particularly with the National Federation of the Blind, before any decision regarding audible traffic signals is made.
Back to Home page