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Walk--Now Run!

Countdown Signal Tells Pedestrians How Much Safe Time Remains


Few elements of the streetscape confuse people more than the flashing red hand of the don't-walk signal. When the red hand blinks, do you walk? Do you run? Do you turn around and race back to the curb?

But Huntington Beach officials are trying to clarify the confusion with a new signal that might be coming to an intersection near you.

The signal looks similar to don't-walk signs but has an important distinction. Next to the familiar red hand and white human figure is a flashing number that tells you how many seconds you have to cross the street. These countdown signals are designed to help pedestrians make better judgments when deciding to cross.

And better judgment is clearly needed.

Along Pacific Coast Highway, teenage boys on skateboards, a father and daughter, and even a woman in a wheelchair zipped across the intersection at Main Street, heedless of the flashing red hand.

Studies conducted by the University of Tennessee's traffic institute and the American Automobile Assn. found that about half of Americans are baffled by what the blinking red hand means.

Here's what police say: When the red hand flashes, don't start crossing the street.

By law, people already in the road should continue. If pedestrians travel at average foot speed, 4 mph, they should be at the far curb by the time the hand turns to a solid red.

Yet this message has been lost on countless pedestrians for a generation, researchers and traffic officials said, causing frequent close calls--if not worse.

"That flashing hand is definitely one of the more misunderstood symbols we have," said Ron Van Hauten, a traffic safety researcher, "The question is: What are the consequences of the misunderstanding?"

Huntington Beach officials selected one of their busiest intersections for the new signals.

Almost 1,000 people cross Pacific Coast Highway at Main Street each hour during the summer months. And many cross illegally and in groups of 20 or more, officials said.

"If we wanted to, we could write tickets all day long, as many as we can, and as fast as we can write them," said Lt. Lloyd Edwards, who heads the Huntington Beach Police Department's traffic division.

The city considered building an elevated walkway or reprogramming the signals. But at $500, the countdown signal is far less expensive than a walkway, and has a better chance of improving traffic flow than reprogramming, traffic engineers said.

At the intersection, the new signal shines the white walk icon as a 27-second countdown starts beside it. At 20 seconds, the icon changes to a flashing red hand, indicating that people on the curb should not cross. At zero, the hand becomes solid red.

Huntington Beach won't know whether the light improves traffic until summer, when the streets are at their busiest.

Similar countdown signals are cropping up across the country. Monterey is testing a few, according to Caltrans, while Walnut Creek near San Francisco installed 176 signals. Several other local cities including San Clemente and Newport Beach are also considering them, according to the signal's distributor.

Joe Paulson, traffic engineer for Boulder, Colo., said the first countdown signal in his city was so popular that he now plans on installing 28 more.

"Of all the things that I've done here, this has captured the most interest of anything. For some reason this signal really captivates people," Paulson said. "It's striking a chord with people who for years have dealt with this fundamental uncertainty: What does the flashing red hand mean? Do you go back? Do you keep going? Finally people understand what the signal means."

In tests last June, Paulson found that 97% of pedestrians immediately understood what the sign meant.

Meanwhile, at Huntington Beach, preliminary reviews are positive, although actual results are mixed. People seem to like them, according to interviews, even when they ignore them.

Shoulder to shoulder, three friends from Riverside strutted across Pacific Coast Highway on a recent afternoon, despite the flashing red hand.

The friends said they knew crossing was illegal but said they were in a hurry. But they express support for the new signals.

"It gives you more information," one said.

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