NEW YORK — A longtime academic wants to teach traffic experts a thing or two about pedestrian safety along dangerous roadways.
Paul Firestone, 79, last month was granted a patent for a transparent lens that, when placed over existing traffic control signals--the "Walk" and "Don't Walk" signals used by pedestrians and the red, yellow and green lights used by drivers--numerically displays the time left until the signal changes.
The lens, known in the federal government's list of patents as Traffic Control Signal with Displayed Time-Elapse, would cost only $15 per signal--not a lot to spend, Firestone said, when lives are at stake.
"Just the other day on Broadway I saw a woman crossing the street and the light was on the last blink, so I ran out there and brought her to the [traffic] island," the Manhattan resident said. "She said she didn't know how much time she had to cross.
"I figured if I knew how many seconds I had, I could gauge my pace and those in wheelchairs or using a walker could do the same," he said.
Firestone now has to sell traffic experts on the idea.
Authorities in New Rochelle, N.Y., have expressed an interest in Firestone's invention, as has Traffic Signals Inc., a Long Island company that distributes traffic signals.
New York City's Department of Transportation, whose officials Firestone could not reach, told Newsday that Firestone's invention seemed intriguing, in part because it would supplement, not replace, existing traffic signals.
Agency spokesman Tom Coccola says DOT has been averse to similar devices that have been tested by other cities for fear that using only numerical signals on street corners would encourage pedestrians, particularly kids, to try to hurry across the street in a race against time.
"But this is different from what we've seen before," Coccola said. "If Firestone wants to show it to us, we would be willing to take a look at it."
Firestone got the idea for his invention when he was almost hit by a car near his home in the summer of 2000.
He knows the "Walk" signal at that corner blinks 12 times before turning to "Don't Walk," but on that particular day he was distracted by a friend, lost count and was forced to scurry across the street to avoid a fast-moving car.
With assistance from his brother, Jack, a retired electrical engineer, and Kevin McKeown, a security expert and the author of the upcoming book "Patent Secrets for Inventors," Firestone researched his idea and applied for a patent. He was surprised when it was granted.
"My feeling was, 'How could someone not have come up with this years ago?'" Firestone remembered.
The new inventor has a background in education, not pedestrian safety.
Firestone said his brush with fatality made him slow down long enough to realize that as much as he gave of himself as an educator, maybe he could help others in a much different way.
"Safety is just as important as education," he said.
Rocco Parascandola is a reporter for Newsday, a Tribune company.