“Wait, Wait, Wait”
The city’s new audio crosswalk alerts are annoying -- and potentially dangerous.
I always push the buttons at crosswalks. Being able to stop traffic rather than dodge it is a small victory for anyone burning calories instead of fossil fuel. It levels the playing field in a city that strictly regiments pedestrians.
But recently this pedestrian friendly device switched sides. Instead of stopping cars at intersections like North Avenue and Prospect or Brady Street and Farwell, a mechanical voice drones on — “wait, wait, wait.” In case I somehow overlook traffic lights, walk signs, and oncoming traffic, this audible alert system hectors me every three seconds.
Unlike a myriad of smart gadgets, this one does not adjust in real time to ambient sound. Once you push the button, it nags away even when there is no traffic. Then, when the light changes, it tell us (as though we didn’t know), “the walk signal is on, the walk signal is on, the walk signal is on.” (Just click below the image at the right to hear the message.)
If audio signals are a good idea, why not use a ring tone that only alerts you to a green light? Or if you must use words, why not just say “walk” when it’s time to do so, rather than demanding we “wait, wait, wait.”
A friend of mine was killed by a car racing through a red light. Somewhere along the line a lawyer must have pointed out a liability issue and so cities decided to add yet more protection against suits. But the audible alert system doesn’t tell you what you really need to know, that it’s safe to cross the street, that no cars are coming. That’s why dogs and humans learn to always look both ways shortly after toilet training.
This new “accessibility” feature is for the visually impaired, according to Sandy Rusch Walton, who handles PR for Milwaukee’s Department of Public Works. There are now more than 20 of these additions to our infrastructure, each costing $15,000 to $20,000. They have been installed by requests that have been forwarded by alderman to DPW. When I interviewed the two aldermen Rusch Walton mentioned, Robert Bauman and Nik Kovac, they were quick to point out these requests did not necessarily carry their recommendation, or take much thought for that matter.
Nor is it clear how much thought the city gave to these devices. It may be more about imitation: Other cities are using variations of audible alerts. They have become more or less a standard practice because they make people feel safer.
But for the visually impaired, the new devices violate the guidelines of the California Driver Handbook, which cautions, “Do not give the blind pedestrian verbal directions. A blind pedestrian listens to all traffic sounds before deciding to cross the street.” In other words, don’t blind the visually impaired. They “look” both ways too.
These new gadgets seem more like the service agreements we sign and never read on the web. Odds are we already knew not to use electronic devices (“wait, don’t use your toaster!”) in the bathtub.
According to the laws of physics humans can’t run-over automobiles. So why not start with the other side of the equation, and put these audible warnings in cars?
That’s easy, people in the information and automobile business know better. We have only so much headspace to watch where we are going. Incessant and redundant messages absorb too much of our attention and would quickly drive motorists to distraction. And before long everyone would figure out how to turn these alerts off.
Most signs are just statements of rules. “No parking” means someone can and will write you a ticket. I can’t think of instance where a sign, in the absence of strong confirmation or enforcement, changed human behavior in the right direction.
Quite the contrary, traffic research shows that people drive faster around a curve that is lit up with danger warnings than the same curve without them. We slow down the first time we come upon a “children at play” sign. But their effectiveness decays when every neighborhood group gets one. Drivers compensate by speeding up between stop signs. There’s a work around for every sign. Most drivers speed up for a yellow light that’s meant to slow you down.
Bruce Herms started this controversy with an influential 1972 paper that found, “with allowance for the number of pedestrians using the cross walks, approximately twice as many pedestrian accidents occur in marked crosswalks as in unmarked crosswalk.” His findings have since been confirmed in study after study. It sounds like a moron joke, the answer is to get rid of signs and signals.
We all know the more someone tells you what to do the less you hear them. As Hans Monderman, the legendary Dutch traffic engineer pointed out, “if you treat people like idiots, they’ll act like idiots.”
None of this is news to Jeff Polenske, the city engineer of infrastructure services for DPW, who lives on the city’s southwest side and bikes to work. He tends to agree with all the points in this article, in principle. At the same time, Polenske notes that we are going to spend millions of dollars to widen a lane in the Marquette Interchange because drivers have complained of increased traffic. Traffic engineers serve the public, the vast majority of whom are drivers, not pedestrians, and the cranky wheel gets the grease.
Polenske thinks there needs to be a cultural change in Milwaukee. No doubt, but meanwhile, ask yourself this question: what navigation system do you want drivers to be using when you cross the street? Anything that divides, diverts, or dims our attention (a cell phone, signs, or alcohol) increases a motorist’s or pedestrian’s risk.
If you are worried about the visually impaired, pass a law giving any blind or partially blind person with a guide dog or a white cane the right of way at all times and places, as is done in California. Better still, treat pedestrians as part of the transportation system and give them the right of way. Their journey is just as important as the guy in his SUV.
Pedestrians are likely to be hurt by a car driving 20 mph. At 40 mph the automobile becomes a killing machine. On the city streets, it’s common to see cars drive that fast, and all the wait, wait, waits in the world won’t provide us with any protection.