Dona Sauerburger, M.A., COMS
Originally posted 2012
This article is about crossing streets 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 (known as a channelized turn lane or slip lane). 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
Crossing During a Crossable Gap in Traffic
At crossings where there is no traffic control, pedestrians usually try to cross when there is a gap in traffic long enough to cross (a “crossable gap”). How can you know when there is a crossable gap in traffic? Traditionally, this was easy — whenever it was quiet, we knew it was clear to cross because we could always hear traffic with enough warning time. “Warning time” is the time from when you detect a vehicle until it arrives, and if you want to be confident that it’s clear to cross, the warning times of approaching vehicles need to all be at least as long as your crossing time. For example, if you need 7 seconds to cross a street, and when it is quiet you can hear all the approaching vehicles when they are more than 7 seconds away, then whenever it’s quiet and you hear nothing coming, you can be confident that it’s clear to cross — if there was a vehicle coming that could reach you during your crossing, you would have heard it.
Research (Wall Emerson & Sauerburger, 2008) has shown that in many cases today, people with normal hearing can still be confident that it’s clear to cross whenever it is quiet because they can hear all the approaching vehicles with enough warning. But this same research found that in some situations even at narrow residential streets, none of the participants who were blind were able to hear some of the vehicles when it was very quiet until they were just a few seconds away. If they had started to cross just before they heard the cars – that is, if they had started to cross while it was still quiet – the vehicles would have reached them before they finished crossing. We call these situations (where you can’t hear all the approaching vehicles with enough warning to know whether it’s clear to cross) “Situations of Uncertainty.”
A number of studies indicate that hybrid and electric vehicles are not the problem at these crossings because when they are going 20 mph or more, they are as loud as vehicles with combustion engines (Garay-Vega et al, 2010). Nevertheless, I was shocked when our research indicated that the loudness of the approaching vehicles had no relationship with how early they could be heard, and their speed had very little effect. That is, the quieter vehicles could be heard on average with as much warning time as the louder vehicles, and the faster ones were often heard with as much warning as the slower ones.
What did have a big impact on the warning times of approaching vehicles was the presence of hills or bends in the road, and the level of ambient sound (Wall Emerson & Sauerburger, 2008). This helps explain why crossings can have Situations of Uncertainty at some times, and not at other times. For example, when it’s quiet in the middle of the night (when the ambient sound level of “quiet” is lowest in most communities), you can hear vehicles much further away than you can when it’s quiet in the middle of the afternoon (when the sound level of quiet is highest).
Many other factors can also affect how well you hear approaching vehicles when it’s quiet. For example, you can hear them further when the roads are wet than when the roads are dry, and leaves on the trees can reflect or absorb sounds, which affects how well you can hear approaching vehicles in the summer vs. the winter.
Because your ability to hear the approaching vehicles when quiet can vary so much, it’s important that whenever you consider crossing a street with no traffic control, observe and ask yourself whether you can hear (or see) the vehicles with enough warning to know whether it’s clear to cross, or does the traffic seem to “appear” unexpectedly, too close and fast? Orientation and mobility (O&M) specialists should be able to help you develop the skill to make this determination on an intuitive level, as well as enable you to determine the probable width of unfamiliar streets by listening to the traffic.
It is also important for you to maximize how well you can hear approaching vehicles and understand the effect of masking sounds on your ability to hear them. You can improve both skills by spending lots of time listening to traffic in various conditions, and O&M specialists should also be able to help you with this.
In the American Printing House for the Blind Products Catalog, under “Orientation and Mobility,” there is a computer program for purchase “Crossings with no traffic control.” The program provides simulations that O&M specialists can use to work with you in learning how to analyze and navigate uncontrolled street crossings.
Additionally, there is a free online “Self-Study Guide: Preparing Visually Impaired Students for Uncontrolled Crossings” to help O&M specialists review what they need to know to help you learn (you are welcome to use the Self-Study Guide yourself!).
If you are using vision to detect the approaching vehicles, it is important that you maximize how reliably you can see them, including making sure that you don’t miss them when you are turning your head from side to side to look for vehicles from both directions. For example, people with restricted visual fields often must learn to move their eyes more slowly in order to avoid missing vehicles nearby. Again, O&M specialists can help you with this, and more information is in the Self-Study Guide.
What If I Cannot Reliably Hear or See the Approaching Vehicles with Enough Warning?
If you cross streets with no traffic control in situations where you cannot hear or see the traffic well enough to know whether it is clear to cross, there is a risk that as you start your crossing, there is a vehicle approaching which will have to slow down or stop to avoid hitting you.
Each situation can be analyzed to determine how much risk there is that a vehicle that you can’t hear is coming that could reach you and, if that happens, how likely will it hit you and, if that happens, how likely will it cause serious injury or death. In some cases, this risk will be very low, such as at narrow streets with very little traffic where you can hear almost all the vehicles with enough warning, and where you are visible from a distance and the drivers are moving slowly and 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. Checklists and information about some of the conditions that research indicates will be a factor to consider can be found in Section 3, pages 1-14, of the Self-Study Guide.
How Likely Is It That the Drivers Will Yield to Me?
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 who are crossing when the vehicles are traveling fast; where pedestrians are not expected, not visible, or don’t have the right of way; when roads are slippery because of ice or rain; visibility is low because of rain, darkness, or fog; or something is blocking the view, such as a hill or a parked truck. Using a white cane while crossing can be helpful. In one study (Bourquin, Wall Emerson, & Sauerburger, 2011), carrying a white cane and using it while crossing two-lane residential streets more than doubled the likelihood that drivers would stop when they were approaching close enough to hit the pedestrian if they didn’t stop (41% of drivers stopped for the pedestrian without the cane, and 87% stopped when the pedestrian was using the white cane).
You are in a particularly dangerous situation if you are crossing more than one lane and 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 in “Alternatives When Crossing is Too Risky,” under Section 3, page 11, of the Self-Study Guide.
For long-term solutions, there are many ways that engineering professionals can revise risky crossings to be safer for all pedestrians. Examples of such solutions can be found in “Environmental Modifications to Improve Crossings with No Traffic Control,” under Section 3, page 12, of the Self-Study Guide.
Roundabout Description Sidebar
Typically, intersections have two perpendicular streets crossing each other in what some people call a “4-way,” “right-angle” or “plus” intersection. Each street approaches the intersection from two directions, meaning that the intersection has streets approaching from 4 directions, each of which are called “legs,” 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.
At roundabouts, the two streets don’t cross each other because there is a large circular island in the middle of the intersection (the island is wider than each street). Drivers travel counterclockwise around the central island, 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 central island. This is usually called the “circulatory roadway” or just “circle.” 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 traffic coming around the circle. 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 in a circular direction. Often, the central island has landscaping or a mound, so you may not be able to hear the traffic on the other side of the circulatory roadway 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.
American Printing House for the Blind. (n.d.). 2021-2022 American Printing House for the Blind Products Catalog.
Bourquin, E., Wall Emerson, R., & Sauerburger, D. (2011). Conditions that influence drivers' yielding behavior for uncontrolled intersections. Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness, 105(11), 760-769.
Garay-Vega, L., Hastings, A., Pollard, J. K., Zuschlag, M., & Stearns, M. D. (2010). Quieter cars and the safety of blind pedestrians: Phase I. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, U.S. Department of Transportation.
Sauerburger, D. (2021, July). Self-study guide: Preparing visually impaired students for uncontrolled crossings. www.sauerburger.org
Wall Emerson, R. & Sauerburger, D. (2008). Detecting approaching vehicles at streets with no traffic control. Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness, 102(12), 747-760.