Most people probably don’t know that some traffic signals have been designed to make noise so that someone who is blind will know when it is safe to cross the street. There aren’t many of them around. An acquaintance from years past once told me that they were common in Sweden. I think I remember the country right. Until recently I had only encountered two of them in my lifetime; both in front of institutions for the blind. The first was in Kansas City. The buzzer was so loud that you could hear it blocks away. The other was here in Dallas. It was a beep almost too quiet. I think I remember both being at one-way crossings, so there was no need to indicate which street was safe.
Several years ago, the city of Richardson upgraded the traffic signals on the corner nearest my house. The corroded old buttons that are pushed to signal a desire to cross were replaced with touch sensitive ones that beep to let you know they got the message. I thought that in this climate of strident demands from every tiny minority that the world cater to their slightest need that there might be some secret way to make these fancy new signals tell me when it was safe to cross. I tried pressing multiple times in rapid succession. I tried holding my thumb on the sensor for long periods of time. Yeah I know that was silly. People do that kind of thing all the time thinking somehow they are going to get the signal to change sooner. I just thought if it was going to beep at me to say I got it then maybe there was a way to make it give me even more audible feedback. Well, if there’s a secret, it remains a secret.
I thought about it realized that beyond the extra expense required to make them blind friendly, who defines what that is? If the signal is too noisy one can’t hear the traffic and that could be deadly. If the signal is too quiet the traffic noise will drown it out. Is there an established standard for what the noises mean? Does the beep or buzz mean stay put or cross? Ideally if there is going to be a noise it should come from the destination pole so that one is certain which way is clear. It should also be something that is easy to pinpoint and head for, especially in crooked intersections. That means it has to be louder, and what if by chance someone else who is blind is standing under that one?
Most of this post was written in 2009. This summer I encountered something new and promptly asked the city if I could have them at several of the intersections I regularly use. The difference? These talk! I was told they will remain in place in downtown Dallas where they were installed around the Sheraton hotel for the 2015 convention of the American Council of the Blind. They tell you which street to cross. They only do so if one pushes the button, which regularly emits a discreet beep so that one can find it. While crossing you are told how much time you have left. This goes a long way to eliminate some of the concerns I expressed.
I’ve put in my order, but the question I asked when I first wrote this is still worth consideration. That is overall safety. I have learned from experience that one cannot rely totally on what the signal is indicating, whether it can be seen or not. Some of them are not well calibrated to leave enough time for anyone to cross safely. Drivers turn right on red, turn left into the cross street on green, or simply disobey the light. Pedestrians must be always on guard regardless of visual acuity. At times one must disobey the signal in order to remain safe. I wonder if having audible signals in addition to potentially masking the noise of an oncoming vehicle may foster a false sense of security leading to more accidents. Now that we have more electrics and hybrids on the road, the noise issue is worse than it might have been in the past.
I look forward to having the audible signal, particularly during low traffic times when something might come barreling out of nowhere. Still, if you can, it is better to work by traffic patterns. After all, the objective is to make it safely to the other side, and the greatest threat to that objective is the automobile driver you’re sharing the road with. I don’t care as much about what that light is doing as about what the truck that just turned in front of me is doing.