Road Worrier

Study explores how blind pedestrians can cross safely

Staff WriterApril 22, 2008 

— Let's get this out of the way early.

Richard Long was not encouraging blind people to play in traffic last week. But the Western Michigan University researcher did spend last week in Raleigh shadowing 17 functionally blind volunteers as they tried to navigate the crosswalks surrounding a busy roundabout on the campus of N.C. State University.

Long was happy to report the absence of any "adverse events." That's academic-speak for, "in the interest of science, no blind pedestrians were plowed over by multitasking drivers cruising around the traffic circle at Pullen Road and Stinson Drive."

"Believe it or not, I spotted volunteers on about 1,000 lane crossings in the last eight days," said Long, associate dean at Western Michigan's College of Health and Human Services. "I'm a whipped man, let me tell you."

Western Michigan's roundabout project, funded by a grant from the National Eye Institute, is scheduled to study similar circles in at least 10 U.S. cities. To help visually impaired pedestrians maneuver safely, Long and other researchers are testing the effectiveness of a video camera system designed to detect when vehicles have stopped "upstream" to allow pedestrians to cross.

If an idling motorist is detected, a speaker mounted at the crossing lane is supposed to repeatedly announce, "vehicle has stopped in the entry lane."

Long said it is too soon to determine from last week's experiment whether the camera system would reduce roundabout risks for blind pedestrians. He noted, however, that NCSU's roundabout featured an unusually high number of motorists willing to yield to pedestrians attempting to cross.

Part of that may be attributed to motorists' heightened awareness on college campuses for students plugged into iPods and other distractions who step into traffic without even a glance. (The Road Worrier can think of a few roundabouts in his former Miami stomping grounds, however, where the sight of a pedestrian only goaded drivers to zip even faster around the curve.)

Roundabouts, proposed as a more environmentally friendly alternative to traffic signals, continue to sprout around North Carolina. They are supposed to reduce stop-and-go traffic as drivers instead slow down (in theory), look for traffic in the circle and dive into the stream.

There are more than 30 roundabouts throughout Raleigh, and the city plans to add one on Hillsborough Street at Pullen Road and another on Oberlin Road. Those projects could be put out to bid as soon as this summer, according to the city's transportation services division.

The Hillsborough Street roundabout will up the ante for pedestrians, however. The one on N.C. State's campus features only one lane of traffic, while the one on Hillsborough Street will feature two lanes.

Nagui M. Rouphail, the director of the Institute for Transportation Research and Education on N.C. State's Centennial Campus, said the debate over making multilane roundabouts safer have featured proposals for some type of traffic signal to help clear space for pedestrians. But why have a roundabout if you're going to use a traffic light there?

"That sort of defeats the purpose of having [roundabouts] out there, if you put a traffic light and have somebody push a button and stop traffic," said Rouphail, who collaborated with Long's project.

Eric Lamb, Raleigh's transportation services division manager, said that multilane roundabouts come with a "slightly higher degree of difficulty" for pedestrians and that the division may consider some sort of signalized crossings offset from the actual intersections.

Another proposed solution being researched is introducing some hybrid between a traffic signal and a stop sign where pedestrians could cross. According to this proposed system, motorists would have some type of go-ahead signal to drive as soon as a pedestrian clears the motorist's lane.

So in other words, walk fast.

"This is probably something that we will also be testing in the next year or so," Rouphail said.

Enlighten the Road Worrier: blogs.newsobserver.com/crosstown or roadworrier@newsobserver.com or (919) 829-4643. Comments, questions and tips are welcome. Don

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