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Comfortable Drivers and Talking Crosswalks

10:13 AM EST on February 1, 2010

Today on the Streetsblog Network, we've got a post from M-Bike.org weighing 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 Industrythat we wanted "quiet" in our cars and trucks -- well, we’ve got it. Thecommercials on TV display it all the time. This "quiet" has allowedus, the drivers, to be in a completely controlled environment -- we nowhave “Moving, Soundproof Rooms”, that’s why I designed this new warningbeacon, the Enhancer.

Everybodywhile driving now is either on their cell phone, reading the paper,listening to satellite stereo systems, with surround sound, yelling atthe 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.

Wecan 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 notpaying attention to our nation’s roadway signage anymore due to thecomfortable environment they’re in. I also believe that we can almostall agree that our nation’s roadway signs are clear and concise intheir meaning and message -- but they’re losing their impact when theyare up against the cell phone using drivers of today.

As M-Bike.org 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.

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