Crossing Where There Is No Traffic Control

Dona Sauerburger, COMS
Certified Orientation and Mobility Specialist

This chapter talks about making street crossings where there is no signal and no stop sign, i.e., no traffic control”) for the street you want to cross. That would be places like:

· crossings where there is a stop sign for the street beside you, but not for the street you want to cross

· separate right-turning lanes at signalized intersections – that is, lanes where the drivers can turn right and avoid the signal. There is usually a triangular island between the lane and the rest of the intersection, and you have to cross the unsignalized lane to reach the island, then cross the rest of the street using the signal.

· roundabouts, which do not require drivers to stop except to yield to vehicles in the circle or pedestrians in the crosswalk

In each of these situations, in addition to figuring out where to stand and which way to face, you must figure out:

§ whether you can tell when it is appropriate or safe to cross;

§ whether it is too risky;

§ what alternatives you have if you decide it is too risky

These questions are the ones we will attempt to address here.

How does one know when to cross?

To cross where there is no traffic control, you should cross when either:

· there is a GAP in traffic long enough to cross …
… that is, there are no vehicles approaching that are close enough or fast enough that they could reach you before you finish your crossing (a “gap in traffic” means the space / time before another vehicle will arrive). .

· you’re confident that ALL drivers have yielded or will yield

Let’s talk about these two options, i.e., (crossing during a gap, and relying on drivers to yield).

Crossing during a sufficient gap in traffic:

In order to know when there is a gap in traffic that is long enough to cross, you need to be able to hear (or see, if you’re using vision) all the vehicles far enough away to know that when you hear nothing coming, there is no vehicle that can reach you before you finish the crossing.

You need to realize that there are many situations where you can’t know it’s clear to cross because either

§ the sound of the approaching vehicles just can’t be heard well enough, even when it is quiet, for example if sound is blocked by a hill or bend in the road, a parked truck, etc.

Traditionally, we have believed that we can always hear traffic well enough to know it is clear to cross whenever it is quiet. Research has shown that in some cases this is still true: At some streets, volunteer research subjects who were blind or visually impaired could hear all the cars well enough to know when it was clear to cross when quiet (Wall Emerson and Sauerburger, 2008).

But this same research found that at some places, even along narrow residential streets when it was very quiet, none of the participants who were blind were able to hear cars until they were just a few seconds away. If they had started to cross before they heard the cars – while it was still quiet – the vehicles would have reached them before they finished crossing.


§ there is too much noise (“ambient sound”) that masks the sound of the vehicles.

For example, the sound of one car going away can keep you from hearing other vehicles approaching. The research of Wall Emerson and Sauerburger (2008) indicated that for being able to hear cars, the loudness of the car is less important than the level of ambient sound. That is, even slight noise from airplanes, distant lawnmowers, or receding cars made participants who were blind unable to hear even some of the louder vehicles until they were just a few seconds away.

It is important that you be able to recognize whether or not you can hear or see the traffic well enough to know it is clear to cross. A procedure for teaching/ learning to make this judgment is at Self-Study Guide: Preparing Visually Impaired Students to Assess and Cross Streets with No Stop Sign or Traffic -Signal Procedure to Develop Judgment of the Detection of Traffic

If you cross streets where you cannot hear or see the traffic well enough to know it is clear to cross, then there is a risk. The danger is that as you start your crossing, there may be a vehicle approaching that you can’t hear or see which will have to slow down or stop to avoid hitting you. In some cases, this risk will be very low, such as at narrow streets with very little traffic, where you are visible from a distance and the drivers are expecting people to cross. In other cases the risk will be very high, such as at wide streets with fast, heavy traffic where you can’t hear the vehicles more than a few seconds away.

How do I know if it is okay to cross, and what alternatives do I have?

Each situation can be analyzed, to determine how much risk there is in crossing. Can you hear (or see) far enough to know when it’s clear to cross, or does the traffic seem to “appear” unexpectedly, too close and fast? Is there a lot of traffic, and is it moving fast or slow? Are there lots of pedestrians so the drivers are expecting people to cross there? Do you have the right of way there, according to the laws in your state or local community?

Crossing when expecting drivers to yield

If you cannot tell when it is clear to cross, one alternative is to cross with the expectation that drivers will stop or slow down for you. Research has verified what you probably already know: You can’t always rely on drivers to stop for you, even when you are using a white cane or traveling with a dog guide. When they do stop, you may not always even know that they are there.

Generally, drivers are less likely to stop for pedestrians when the vehicles are traveling fast, or pedestrians are not expected or not visible, or don’t have the right of way, or when roads are slippery because of ice or rain, and/or visibility is low because of rain, darkness or fog. Carrying a white cane and holding it where the drivers can see it can sometimes make it more likely that they will stop, and in other cases it makes little or no difference.   The drivers may be more likely to see the cane if you move it, for example moving it up and down (being careful not to endanger other pedestrians) or moving the tip along the ground in front of you in an arc like you do when walking.  Drivers will be more likely to understand that you intend to cross if you lean forward and/or put one foot in the street (many states do not provide the right of way to pedestrians unless they have a foot in the street).

Risky situation

You are in a particularly dangerous situation if you are crossing more than one lane and are relying on drivers to yield. Drivers who have stopped for you in one lane can make it impossible for drivers in other lanes to see you and your white cane or guide dog. You are not visible until you have stepped into their lane and are crossing in front of them. At the same time, the sound of the vehicle waiting for you can make it impossible for you to hear other vehicles, including vehicles coming in the next lanes.

This is exactly what happened when a blind man, his guide dog, and his visually impaired wife crossed 3 lanes one night in Wheaton, Maryland. A car in the second lane stopped for them, and another driver pulled around that car and didn’t see the couple. The vehicle was just a few feet away from the couple and they stepped in front of it. All three of them were killed.


If you feel that the danger of crossing is too great for you to accept the risk, you can consider alternatives, such as those listed at Self-Study Guide: Preparing Visually Impaired Students to Assess and Cross Streets with No Stop Sign or Traffic- Alternatives When Crossing is Too Risky . For long-term solutions, there are many ways that transportation professional can revise risky crossings to be more safe for all pedestrians – there are examples at Self-Study Guide: Preparing Visually Impaired Students to Assess and Cross Streets with No Stop Sign or Traffic- Environmental Modifications to Improve Crossings with No Traffic Control

Roundabout description sidebar:

Typically, intersections have two perpendicular streets crossing each other. Each street approaches the intersection from two directions, meaning that the intersection has streets approaching from 4 directions. The approaching street is called a “leg”, with a corner between each of the 4 legs. If you walk toward the intersection along any of the legs, you’ll come to a corner where another street (leg) meets the intersection. Traffic engineers (TE) typically call this a “4-way intersection” or “right angle intersection” while certified orientation and mobility specialists (COMS) may call it a “plus” intersection.

At roundabouts, the two streets don’t cross each other because there is a large round/circular island in the middle of the intersection (the island is wider than each street). Drivers have to go around this island. They drive in a counter-clockwise direction, always keeping the island to their left.

So instead of meeting and crossing each other, each leg of the intersection approaches and leads into the circular roadway going around the island. This is usually called the circulatory roadway. Drivers who want to continue on one street (let’s call it Main Street) have to approach the roundabout, go around the circulatory roadway until they reach the other side, and leave the roundabout where the other leg of Main Street connects to the circulatory roadway.

Each street that enters the circulatory roadway has a divider (a “splitter island”) along the middle of the street, dividing the traffic that approaches the roundabout from the traffic that comes out. The divider or splitter island usually starts 1-4 car lengths (about 15-60 feet) from the circulatory roadway and extends to the edge of the circulatory roadway. The splitter island is usually just a few inches wide at the end furthest from the circle. The island widens up to 20 to 30 feet near the circulatory roadway. As the island gets wider, so does the street.

The crosswalk for each street is not where the street meets the circle. Instead, the crosswalk is about one or two car-lengths away from the circle. That is, if cars come along one street and stop at the circle, the crosswalk will usually be behind the first or second car. The crosswalk usually has a curb ramp at each end, and cuts through the splitter island in the middle. You may walk through the splitter island without realizing it if there is no curb or detectable warning where the crosswalk goes through it.

What is a roundabout like when you walk around it?

Let’s say you are walking along one street, which we’ll call Main Street, approaching the roundabout with Main Street on your left side. Main Street begins to get wider and wider, making you turn more and more to the right. Before you reach the circulatory roadway, you may find a curb ramp on your left for the crosswalk across Main Street. By the time you reach the circulatory roadway, you have turned so much that the circle is beside you, and you are walking around it. There is no corner where Main Street meets the circulatory roadway. As you continue walking, you will be gradually turning more to the right and leaving the circle along the right side of the other street, which we’ll call “Apple Street.” There is no corner where Apple Street meets the circulatory roadway either.

What does the traffic sound like?

As you first walk along Main Street toward the circle, you’ll hear the traffic beside you on Main Street, going in both directions. The traffic in the circle has the right of way, so the traffic on Main Street may slow down or stop when it reaches the circulatory roadway. Then the traffic surges forward to enter the circle whenever there is a gap in the turning traffic. As you approach the roundabout, you may be able to notice that the traffic on the other side of Main Street (coming out of the circulatory roadway) is sounding further and further away from you, because the splitter island between you and that traffic is getting wider and wider.

If you can hear traffic going around the circle, it may at first sound like it is far ahead of you. As you get closer, the circle traffic gradually sounds more and more to your left side. When you are actually walking along the circle, the traffic will be on your left, but you may notice that it isn’t going straight, it is going around a circle. Often the middle of the circle has landscaping or a mound, so you can’t hear the traffic on the other side of the circle well.

Where do you cross a roundabout?

The crosswalk to cross the street beside you (Main Street) is going to be about 20 to 30 feet before you get to the circulatory roadway. To continue straight ahead on Main Street, you have to curve around the circle and follow the sidewalk as it leaves the roundabout along Apple Street. Look for a sidewalk or curb ramp on your left. Turn left to cross Apple, then turn to the left and return back to the roundabout, continuing along the sidewalk until you are once again walking alongside Main Street, leaving the roundabout.


Sauerberger, Dona and Robert Wall Emerson. “Detecting Approaching Vehicles
At Streets with No Traffic Control.” Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness. December, 2008, Vol. 102, Issue 12, 747-760.

Sauerberger, Dona. Self-Study Guide: Preparing Visually Impaired Students to Assess and Cross Streets with No Stop Sign or Traffic