Proposed flashing signals for road crossings would help pedestrians, experts say

Authorities should consider installing warning lights to make it safer for pedestrians to cross roads mid-block without traffic lights or a stop sign, experts say.

Rectangular rapid flashing beacons are pedestrian-activated, warning lights that notify drivers when a pedestrian is entering a crosswalk. Courtesy of Carmanah Technologies Corp, Victoria, Canada
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ABU DHABI // Authorities should consider installing warning lights to make it safer for pedestrians to cross zebra crossings without traffic lights or a stop sign, experts say.

The proposed light – a rapidly flashing rectangular beacon – is manually activated by a pedestrian or cyclist pushing a button. Once pushed, a highly visible pattern similar to lights on police cars alerts drivers that people are entering a pedestrian crossing.

“In North America, government regulations limit the number of applications for rectangular rapid flashing beacons to preserve their impact,” said Tom Scott of Carmanah Technologies, a Canadian company that provides renewable energy-based solutions.

First developed in the United States, these high-intensity warning lights are installed at intersections not controlled by traffic signals or stop signs, such as mid-block crosswalks and crosswalks located at roundabouts.

“Apart from increasing the rate of drivers yielding to pedestrians, the technology is environmentally friendly, cost-effective and quick to install – under an hour,” said Mr Scott, who is part of the traffic division that supports agencies to improve road safety.

Mohideen K, a 37-year-old ­accountant in Abu Dhabi, used the mid-block crossing in front of the Marina Plaza building on Muroor Road on Thursday. He said pedestrians were often at the mercy of arrogant drivers at crosswalks.

“I think we need pedestrian signals that can help us to cross the road safely,” he said.

The flashing device should be installed on most busy arterial roads of Abu Dhabi, such as those in the central business district, said Dr Sharaf Alkheder, a former associate professor of civil engineering at Al Hosn University in Abu Dhabi.

“For instance, a high percentage of pedestrians use the mid-block crossings on Electra and Hamdan streets,” he said. “The Corniche road is also a suitable place for such a device.”

Flashing beacons have a place, and work well, in societies where there is already good acceptance of pedestrian safety and awareness of vulnerable road users, according to Simon Labbett, project director at Sheida, the road safety standards body in Oman.

“[But] Abu Dhabi has not yet reached that level. So in the short term, separation through barriers, bridges and underpasses or the regulation through traffic-controlled junctions will provide greater pedestrian safety and security,” he said.

Mr Labbett, a former head of the British consultancy Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) in the UAE, described the concept as interesting but warned of potential hazards.

“If one motorist stops, there is no certainty that other motorists will stop in other lanes and the pedestrian crossing the road may then be masked by stationary traffic,” he said.

“Drivers in the region rarely stop for pedestrians at uncontrolled crossings. Even if a driver does stop, it may take other drivers by surprise and risk a collision.”

If flashing beacons were introduced in the UAE, it would need to be accompanied by enforcement and education, and a careful choice of locations, Mr Scott said.

“Awareness is necessary for compliance. In North America, a flashing amber beacon means that someone is trying to cross the road,” he said.

In the UAE drivers do not stop for pedestrians at crossings even though the traffic law ­requires them to do so, according to Dr Britta Lang, TRL’s new local head.

"This is not because they do not notice the pedestrian waiting at the crossing, but because of the car-dominated culture in the UAE, which differs from the concept of shared road space in other countries," she said.

Installing rapidly flashing lights aims to increase the visibility of the pedestrian, not the driver’s willingness to stop for a pedestrian.

“There is the potential danger that the pedestrian will rely on the flashing beacon to keep him or her safe when crossing, and may start crossing even though the driver never intended to stop,” Dr Lang said.