Comfortable Drivers and Talking Crosswalks

Today on the Streetsblog Network, we’ve got a post from, who weighs in on a new crosswalk treatment in a Michigan town:

home_pic2.jpgCan this crosswalk penetrate a driver’s consciousness? (Photo: R.D. Jones)

Some fancy solar-powered crosswalk signs

(the “Enhancer”), with lights, flashing beacons, and a pleasant spoken
instructions have recently been installed in Lyon Township where the
Huron Valley Trail crosses both a newly constructed road as well as
Grand River.

They’re expensive, obnoxious, and as far as we can tell, somewhat ineffective.

As for the obnoxiousness, here are the instructions. "Hello. You’ve activated the crosswalk signal. Wait for traffic to stop before you cross. To show traffic you want to cross, place one foot near the curb line. And remember to thank the driver as you are crossing the roadway."

Why are pedestrians and cyclists instructed to thank
motorists just for following state and local crosswalk laws? Shouldn’t
that be a basic expectation?…

[W]hile testing them on Grand River, a van never slowed
when the sign was activated and we were trying to cross. It appeared
they were texting.

Maybe we should thank those drivers that aren’t driving while distracted, too.

Now, there’s certainly nothing the matter with a little wave of acknowledgment when a driver stops to let you cross. In more suburban or rural areas, where there are few people around, it seems like a natural gesture. But the inclusion of this reminder in the crosswalk’s spoken instructions certainly does sound obnoxious, and reveals a familiar autocentric mindset.

On the website of the company that makes the "Enhancer" crosswalk, R.D. Jones, its inventor, explains the thinking behind it:

About 20 years ago, we told the Automotive Industry
that we wanted "quiet" in our cars and trucks — well, we’ve got it. The
commercials on TV display it all the time. This "quiet" has allowed
us, the drivers, to be in a completely controlled environment — we now
have “Moving, Soundproof Rooms”, that’s why I designed this new warning
beacon, the Enhancer.

while driving now is either on their cell phone, reading the paper,
listening to satellite stereo systems, with surround sound, yelling at
the kids, putting on makeup, looking at the GPS system, watching a DVD,
or just plain not paying attention to the roadway — because they’re "relaxing" or in a big hurry to get to their next destination.

can all relate to at least one of the above. Our world is fast paced,
and we’re always late. It’s my belief that the motorists are just not
paying attention to our nation’s roadway signage anymore due to the
comfortable environment they’re in. I also believe that we can almost
all agree that our nation’s roadway signs are clear and concise in
their meaning and message — but they’re losing their impact when they
are up against the cell phone using drivers of today.

As observes, it’s not at all clear that a few more flashing lights, no matter how well-intentioned, are going to break into that sacred space that is the American automobile, with all its seductions (surround sound!) and vexations (those darn kids!). What needs to change is the sense of entitlement and invulnerability inside the mind of "us, the drivers." And in a world where pedestrians are told by a machine to thank drivers for the privilege of a safe crossing, that seems a long way off.

More from around the netowrk: More on road etiquette from Biking in LA. Hub and Spokes wonders why there are so many roads in Minnesota. And Biking in Dallas documents that city’s truly impressive bike infrastructure.

  • Eileen

    Where I live (DC), failing to stop for a pedestrian at a crosswalk is a crime punishable by 30 days or a $500 fine. The law is rarely enforced criminally (normally only civil penalties apply),unfortunately, but that doesn’t change the fact that a person who fails to stop for me at a crosswalk is a criminal. I don’t thank people for not being criminals.

  • The sign in the picture is supposed to indicate a school crossing (note that the figures appear to be carrying books), but drivers rarely get it. A much cheaper fix than a talking signpost would be including the phrase “school crossing” or “yield to children” on the sign.

  • cat

    When I lived in a major city in the middle of the country (Denver), I was always surprised and frustrated by how many pedestrians in the downtown area would a) wave to drivers for yielding the pedestrian right-of-way, or b) flat-out run through the crosswalk when a car was waiting to make a turn. Some people would wave AND run.

  • A benefit of sound systems in crosswalks is they make things easier for the blind. But, I must agree this sounds obnoxious.

  • Thank drivers for following the law and not putting me in mortal danger. I thought I’d heard it all.

  • And if you speak Spanish?

  • Chirping stop lights tell the blind when they can cross in a way that is much less obnoxious.

    Based on what the article says, this one doesn’t even tell you when it is safe to cross. It just tells you that you have activate the light and should wait to cross.

    Imagine what it would be like if they had these in cities, and one was installed under your apartment window, so you heard the same message hundreds of times a day.

  • I don’t wave to anyone for the explicit purpose of thanking them for not violating the law and/or killing me, however I do typically wave to fellow human beings when I cross paths with them in public (outside of big cities), whether they be on foot, on a bike, in a car, riding a horse, etc.

    I’m as bitter as the best of them, but it’s important to keep in mind that the movement for redefining public space and transportation in America is about challenging current public policies and general social attitudes, NOT chastising individuals whose choices are typically dictated by these general social attitudes. In other words, get pissed off when a street is designed poorly, or when some politician blocks an increase in the gas tax, or when a new expressway is built in lieu of a transit line. And of course get mad at the individual motorist who cuts you off or makes honking noises.

    But don’t get mad at someone who lives in the suburbs, and hops in their car to go to the grocery store, as society has trained them to do. If you must feel some type of animosity, just remember: They are sheep. You and I understand the critical role that transportation choices play in society, but they do not. So smile, wave, pedal on, and feel good about yourself for actually thinking about your lifestyle choices for yourself, as opposed to what is handed down to you by society.

  • IsaacB

    This gadget is consistent with US street design, which is typically executed by people who only use the streets from inside an automobile. Like the traffic signals that only turn for the ped if s/he presses a button (and it’s not broken) and then says “walk” for only a second or two before flashing red or counting down. It’s the perspective that brings us gems like this opinion piece a few weeks ago in the Atlantic City Press:

    Cite > Pedestrian deaths increase: Could it be the state’s fault?

    > There have been 24 more pedestrian deaths in New Jersey so far this year than in 2008 — and traffic-safety officials can’t figure out why…Do you think it might have something to do with the increased enforcement of a decades-old law that gives pedestrians the right of way when in a crosswalk?…Whatever the statutes said, pedestrians were taught to stop, look both ways and wait until no cars were coming… Then the state started handing out grants for enforcing the crosswalk law…All of a sudden, streets were full of pedestrians stepping into…traffic…The Press has run dozens of letters pointing out how dangerous this law is. A friend who is a police officer stopped me on the street to tell me how dangerous this law is…Everybody seems to get it except state traffic officials…Go back to teaching pedestrians to look both ways and wait for traffic to clear…and who knows? Just maybe fewer pedestrians will get killed.
    / Cite

  • IsaacB

    > …About 20 years ago, we told the Automotive Industry that we wanted “quiet” in our cars and trucks…to be in a completely controlled environment — we now have “Moving, Soundproof Rooms”…

    Funny how quickly lawmakers (who probably didn’t cycle) banned cycling with headphones (back in the ’80s) on the fear that cyclists would not be able to hear traffic or horns.

  • gerard Lehner

    At intersection of Essex street and East Houston street , lower eastside Manhattan , the South east corner crosswalk to north east corner has a dangerous ripple as motorist have an optical illusion of a unmarked pavement and may not see the lane markings and may find it difficult to steer etc within these parallel ripples in the pavement. Also this effect shows extra ware of the paint in the pavement designation markings. There are schools in this area of the city. The ripples may be fun elsewhere as is a park , but not on traffic rolling streets shared with the pedestrians night and day.
    Perhaps the city should adorpt the color BLUE when the road surface needs repair.

    Like call it Blue Dot or Dot Blue and incorporate it into the International Motor Vechical Manuals

  • My town just spent $300K on a couple of new crosswalks with recessed blinking lights that are supposed to signal to cars to let pedestrians cross, and automated messages that warn pedestrians “Cross street with caution. Cars may not stop.” And, surprise surprise, cars don’t stop. (Drivers are legally required to yield to pedestrians at intersections here too, but I have yet to see anyone enforce that law, ever.) I can’t believe they spent all that money on a system that does nothing but warn people that cars won’t stop for them.

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