Journey to Understanding
Dona Sauerburger -- June, 2009

This chronicles my long journey to understand issues of crossing streets where there is no traffic control or stop sign. The timeline is as follows:
  • Galvanized by a tragedy
  • Can these strategies for analysis really work?
  • Applying TMAD / TMASD
  • Teaching people to judge situations
  • So, what now? Risks, decisions and alternatives
  • Scanning -- yikes!
  • Necessary concepts and skills
  • Validation with research
  • Spreading the word

    Galvanized by a tragedy

    My journey began one bitterly cold night in January, 1987 when Dick and Lorraine Evensen, two colleagues and friends of ours, were killed along with his guide dog on their way home from dinner. They got off the bus in Wheaton, Maryland and crossed Georgia Avenue where there was no traffic signal or stop sign. The neighbors and bus driver later said that Dick, who was totally blind, crossed all six lanes there by himself regularly. Lorraine was visually impaired from albinism and she could probably see the headlights of the cars coming from several blocks away.

    As they got off the bus, a little girl pointed them out to her mother who explained that blind people can cross streets independently, so they watched the whole thing. The Evensens crossed the first 3 lanes without incident and waited on the median strip, then started across the second half. A driver slowed down in the middle lane to avoid hitting them -- the driver behind him pulled around to the last lane and hit all three of them.

    For the next few months, I thought about how such a tragedy could have happened, and how we could have advised them about crossing there. That is when I developed the Timing Method for Assessing the Detection of Vehicles (TMAD) for people like Dick who cannot see cars at a distance (I called it the "Timing Method for Limited Detection") and the Timing Method for Assessing the Speed and Distance of Vehicles or TMASD (I now call it Practicing Determining Gaps in Approaching Traffics) for people like Lorraine, to evaluate whether they could judge when the cars are far or slow enough to allow time to cross.

    I originally created these methods just to analyze the fatal crossing. I went to the place where they had been killed and, using the TMASD, I watched for the cars where Lorraine had watched for them. I was astounded to find that during the day with my normal vision, I myself misjudged the cars as they approached me. It took me 8.5 seconds to cross from the median strip, and when I thought the cars from the right were far enough that it was still safe to start crossing, yikes! the nearest car was only 5 seconds away! If I had started to cross when I thought it was still safe, that driver would have had to slow down for me, just like the driver slowed down for Lorraine and Dick. After a few trials, however, I was able to judge them well.

    Then I used the TMAD to see if it had been possible for Dick to hear the cars well enough to know it was clear to cross, since apparently he had crossed there regularly with no vision. When it was quiet I could hear the first car 10 seconds away. I was encouraged, and figured if I can hear all of them that far, it was safe to cross when quiet. I timed a few more, but of the next 6 cars, even though it was quiet when I first heard them, there were two that I couldn't hear until they were only 3 seconds away. One was going very fast, but the other was coasting slowly down a slight grade and I couldn't hear it until it was very close.

    I was shaken to my core. I realized that there are some places where it is NOT safe to cross when it is quiet! I wondered if Dick and Lorraine would have crossed there if they had realized how difficult it is to predict when it is clear to cross at that location.

    Can these strategies for analysis really work?

    About a month after the tragedy, I was in Olney, Maryland with a young deaf woman with retinitis pigmentosa. We were walking from my car to the bus stop where she was going to start her lesson taking the bus to Washington, DC. On previous lessons she had gotten to the bus stop and shops and restaurants from her home about a mile away, which involved lots of crossings with stop signs and traffic signals, and she had done it well many times. But on this day, the easiest way to get to the bus stop and start our lesson from my car was to cross Georgia Avenue where there was no traffic signal, so I prepared to guide her across.

    But she stopped to ask if she could cross there when she was alone, or if she should walk several blocks to the signal.

    I remember my heart jumped into my throat. I had been teaching O&M for almost 20 years by that time, but I had never in my life had to help anyone analyze crossings where there is no traffic control. And here it was just weeks after our friends had been killed crossing with no traffic control, and this trusting client was asking me for advice about crossing Georgia Avenue about six miles from where Dick and Lorraine had crossed it for the last time.

    The only time I had even come close to analyzing such a crossing was about 10 years earlier. I remember it was on a Friday that my client wanted to know if she could safely cross Greenbelt Road with her guide dog to get to the bus. Greenbelt Road was 6 lanes wide and had no stop sign or traffic signal within miles. We agreed to analyze it on Monday, and all weekend I fretted and worried and thought about how I could possibly analyze such a situation. On Monday when I drove to her home, I was amazed to see a crew installing a traffic signal about a quarter mile down the road. Saved by the engineers!

    So anyway, back to Olney with the deaf-blind woman who had asked if she could safely cross the street. After I recovered from my shock, I gulped and took a deep breath, and told her about the recent deaths. Her eyes teared up and she said it was very sad that two sweethearts had died together like that.

    After we talked about it a little, I tentatively told her that I had created several methods to analyze if people can tell whether it's clear to cross, and asked her if she wanted to try one of them there. She said yes, she was willing to experiment.

    Since she could see quite far, we had her practice determining gaps in approaching traffic. Just as I had grossly misjudged the cars when I had tried it, she also thought that it was safe to cross when the traffic was actually too close and/or coming too fast. But within about a half hour of practice, she had learned to accurately judge when the traffic was still far enough and/or slow enough to allow her time to cross, just as I had learned. We both felt confident that she could judge when it was safe to cross, and I was surprised and delighted that such a simple timing strategy could be so helpful to teach someone to judge the traffic so well.

    My journey of understanding begins

    Applying TMAD / Practicing Determining Gaps in Approaching Traffic (TMASD) and sharing the story
    After that experience, I started to use the TMAD to help clients analyze crossings to see if they could hear/see well enough to know if it was clear to cross. And I started experimenting with Practicing Determining Gaps in Approaching Traffic with my 14-year-old son and a few friends and clients to assess their ability to judge whether the approaching traffic is too close or too fast to allow them time to cross. Each one of them initially misjudged the traffic, as I had done -- it made me wonder how we had all managed to survive! Each person also improved with just a little practice and feedback using the TMASD.

    I shared these ideas with the O&M specialists of our local Metropolitan Washington O&M Association, and one of them, Linda Sussman, started analyzing these kinds of crossings with her clients too. It was she who found a crossing in a residential street (click here for video) where it was not possible to hear the cars well enough to know when it is clear to cross (see story) -- we were shocked and dismayed to realize that the problem potentially existed everywhere, not just at busy 6-lane highways.

    We were both shocked and incredulous that such a thing could be. I wanted to bring this problem to the attention of our colleagues, so I videotaped Linda and her consumer and used it to put together a presentation in New York at the O&M Division Day of AER's regional conference. It was my first presentation ever, and I practiced giving the talk to my steering wheel enough times that I could present it professionally without choking up when talking about my friends who had been killed. The presentation went well, the audience was attentive, and I went through the entire presentation very professionally until the question-answer session, when I responded by saying what I would have told the blind couple if I had been asked. Thinking about them ended the professional demeanor -- I broke down and started crying, I had to go into the hall and sob. Who will take up the mantle? At that time I considered myself "just a practitioner," as my friend felt the other night, and I thought I needed to hand this information and these ideas over to our profession. I figured our leaders and experts would also be alarmed when I brought the problem to their attention. They would refine or develop the procedures for analyzing situations or, better yet, come up with procedures of their own, and come back to us practitioners and tell us how we should teach our consumers in view of the fact that our "tried and true" strategies no longer worked. It was about this time that I wrote To Cross or Not to Cross to share what I was learning.

    Teaching people to judge situations
    Meanwhile, as I continued working with clients at crossings with no traffic control, I realized that situations can change from day to day and even moment to moment. Clients need to be able to analyze the situations themselves quickly, so I developed a procedure for training students to be able to recognize Situations of Uncertainty to help them learn how to objectively observe and analyze these crossings.

    So, what now? Risks, decisions and alternatives
    Before long, I had also begun to realize that teaching people to recognize and quantify their ability (or lack of ability!) to detect traffic wasn't enough. Whenever they found themselves in a situation where they couldn't tell whether it is clear to cross, we needed to deal with the question "so, what now?" We started to consider alternatives. I included this concept of alternatives in my 1995 article "Safety Awareness for Crossing Streets With No Traffic Control.

    Slowly during the next 5-10 years, I also started to consider the issues of safety, risks, decisions and alternatives (for all crossings, not just those with no traffic control) and how to prepare our students to deal with them. By that time, I had already been dealing with these issues for many years with clients who are deaf-blind, but now realized that we need to do the same for everyone. For each street-crossing situation, blind pedestrians need to evaluate the level of risk and consider whether that risk is acceptable, and be able to use alternatives when the risk is more than they are willing to accept. In 2005 I finally summarized that approach in an article Street Crossings: Analyzing Risks, Developing Strategies, and Making Decisions (it is outlined on this website at "Street-Crossings: Analyzing Risks, Developing Strategies, and Making Decisions").

    Scanning -- yikes!
    Meanwhile, one day some time around 1996 I was working with a young deaf woman who had severely restricted visual fields ("tunnel vision"). In addition to learning to use a cane and travel at night, she wanted to improve her street-crossing skills because she had already been hit by cars twice.

    I was quite proud that I had discovered that people with tunnel vision need to scan slowly or they miss seeing things, and I had developed an exercise to develop their scanning skills by looking for little pieces of paper taped to the wall. She had passed her training with flying colors several weeks earlier.

    On this day, we had just finished assessing her ability to see the traffic at a crossing with no traffic signal or stop sign. We determined that she could see far enough to know that if she sees nothing coming, it is clear to cross. The lesson was finished, and we needed to get to my car across the street. I told her I would follow her across.

    She looked in both directions, saw nothing coming and started to cross.

    YEOW! There was a car coming FAST from her left, only about 2 car-lengths away -- too close for the driver to have been able to avoid hitting her!

    I pulled her back and was horrified, thinking, "Oh my GOSH! I was so proud that she can find little pieces of paper on the wall and DIDN'T REALIZE SHE NEEDS TO LEARN TO SEE CARS TOO!"

    So right then and there, we developed a way to practice scanning slowly enough to see the cars, which she learned to do within about 15 minutes. I added the skill of scanning to my O&M program for everyone who uses vision to detect the traffic (this process is described at the bottom of "Training to Scan and Glance with Restricted Visual Fields"). After several years of experience with this, I found that people with restricted visual fields need to scan slowly, like she did, whereas those with acuity loss need to be able to watch long enough to see the cars' movement (see "Challenges and Strategies for SCANNING or GLANCING left/right).

    Necessary concepts and skills
    After about 15 years of teaching people to analyze and cross at streets with no traffic signal or stop sign, I began to understand which concepts and skills are needed to deal with these crossings. I outlined them in Teaching at Crossings With No Traffic Signal or Stop Sign.

    Validation with research
    In 2006, Dr. Robert Wall Emerson and I researched people's ability to hear traffic approaching at these crossings. The research not only verified what I had observed, it provided a wealth of information (see our article "Detecting Approaching Vehicles at Streets with No Traffic Control").

    Spreading the word
    Throughout all these years, I have tried to spread the word about this issue. I have written articles, done presentations and produced videotapes. I have worked with the Environmental Access Committee of the AER Orientation and Mobility Division to write a position paper which asserts that best practice for O&M programs is to prepare students to be able to "recognize situations where they cannot hear or see well enough to reliably predict gaps in traffic" ("Situations of Uncertainty for gap judgment").

    But the efforts to share these insights have been very frustrating (see acceptance speech). One of my life's biggest disappointments is that even today, 25 years after Dick and Lorraine were killed crossing a street with no traffic signal or stop sign, there are recent graduates of O&M programs who say they are not familiar with how to teach students to recognize Situations of Uncertainty for gap judgment. And many practitioners say that they are having students time the cars, as I had done 20 years ago, but that they are not really comfortable with teaching students to recognize Situations of Uncertainty for gap judgment.

    That is why I decided to FINALLY put together everything I've learned about crossings with no traffic signal or stop sign! You can find it all by starting at "Self-Study Guide: Preparing Visually Impaired Students to Assess and Cross Streets with No Traffic Control."

    I hope that as you address these issues with your students and clients, you will share your experiences and concerns -- I can't wait to hear from you! Let's spread the word, so that all consumers of O&M programs can benefit from this hard-earned knowledge, and Dick and Lorraine will not have died in vain.

    Return to Acceptance Speech, Lawrence E. Blaha Award
    Return to Situations of Uncertainty for Gap Judgment
    Return to Crossing Streets Where There Is No Stop Sign or Traffic Signal
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