Blind and Visually Impaired Pedestrians: What Are Their Difficulties When Crossing the Street?
Blind and visually impaired pedestrians can face many obstacles and challenges when they navigate the streets, especially for crossing them.
Abled pedestrians cross the street in an automatic way without even thinking about it. They simply check out the color of the traffic lights and start walking as soon as the green man appears.
They “just” have to be careful when crossing the street by checking if a car is coming. For blind and visually impaired pedestrians, being careful is a state of mind. It never leaves them.
Because as soon as they step foot outside, the world can easily become inhospitable. But if you become aware of their struggles and issues, you’ll be able to make sure they can safely cross the streets of your city.
There are solutions that enable blind and visually impaired pedestrians to feel less anxious when crossing the street. First, let’s see what actions they need to take to safely cross the street.
1. Locate the beginning of the crossing
This actually represents the most challenging action for blind and visually impaired pedestrians.
They more or less know where they stand on the intersection. Other pedestrians rely on visual cues to spot the desired crossing and go towards it. But how can they know where the crossing begins?
They can rely on a locator tone that constantly emits sound.
The locator tone is used as an audio signage: it helps blind and visually impaired pedestrians find the beginning of the crossing.
Unfortunately, not all intersections are equipped with one. So what can they do when there’s no locator tone?
Either people with visual impairments are already familiar with the intersection and they know where the crossing begins. They may have tips like counting steps.
Or they can focus on the ambient sound: traffic with cars coming and going, people talking while waiting their turn to cross…
They can also ask another pedestrian to tell them where the crossing is.
2. Press the pushbutton
People with vision disabilities have now found the beginning of the crossing. But to know when they have the right-of-way, they need to actuate the accessible pedestrian signals.
This means finding the pushbutton on the pole. Pushbutton-integrated APS are indeed very common in the U.S.
If the pushbutton is equipped with a locator tone then that’s easy. But if there’s no locator tone, they can just feel around to know where exactly it’s located on the pole. There’s no other specific beacon that can help blind and visually impaired pedestrians.
A vibrotactile arrow pointing in the direction of travel on the crosswalk is required on all APS. It’s directly installed on the pushbutton. But be aware that the alignment information isn’t accurate enough for blind and visually impaired pedestrians.
When the WALK sign is on, the arrow vibrates to dub the audio information from the accessible pedestrian signals. This is particularly helpful for deafblind pedestrians.
However in times of COVID-19, touching surfaces that may be contaminated can be dangerous for all pedestrians.
3. Rely on the accessible pedestrian signals
The accessible pedestrian signals are now activated. They provide audio information when the WALK signal is on.
Since they dub the warning traffic lights, their role is key. For them to properly work, they need to provide:
⊗ High-quality sound,
⊗ Clear information with the street name of the intersection,
⊗ Minimum volume of about 30 dB and a maximum volume of about 90 dB.
It’s to be noted that accessible pedestrian signals can’t be 5 dB louder than ambient sound.
When installers set up accessible pedestrian signals, they need to take into account the ambient sound when traffic is busy to make sure it perfectly matches real conditions.
Consequently, their volume depends on the intersections and their traffic.
The point is for blind and visually impaired people to properly hear the audio information provided without covering ambient sound.
Ambient sound actually helps them understand how the intersection is (if it’s long, busy with fellow pedestrians or cyclists…).
4. Get to the other side of the crossing
The WALK sign is on and the accessible pedestrian signal is dubbing it to let blind and visually impaired pedestrians know they can cross the street.
At this point, the goal is to walk straight without going off course. Two elements explain this:
⊗ The need to avoid bumping into other pedestrians,
⊗ The need to easily get across the street and arrive safely at the other side of the crossing.
One way to help them cross the street more easily is to set up a guiding sound corridor directly integrated in the accessible pedestrian signals.
With such a system, both APS from both sides of the crossing simultaneously broadcast audio information while blind and visually impaired pedestrians are crossing the street.
The guiding sound corridor wraps up them. They just have to follow the sound to easily reach the other side. It truly helps them walk straight.
5. Rely on auditory cues
What happens when there’s no audible pedestrian signal? That’s actually more and more frequent as many cities decide to promote active mobility and encourage public transit.
One of their actions in doing so is to remove traffic lights. For blind and visually impaired pedestrians, this puts them at risk as accessible pedestrian signals are removed as well.
Consequently, cities need to guarantee their safety. It’s not because there’s no APS that they can’t remain autonomous and fully enjoy the city.
There are other auditory cues that can help people with vision disabilities cross the street. In Rouen, France, the city has installed audio beacons on poles at an intersection with a bus rapid transit system (BRT).
Blind and visually impaired pedestrians activate on demand the audio beacons with a remote control or a smartphone app so that they know where the crossing is located.
This system, created by French leading accessibility company Okeenea, uses flashing lights on top of the poles to alert motorists of the presence of vulnerable pedestrians.
Thanks to this innovative system, people with vision disabilities can still navigate this intersection despite the removal of traffic lights. Unfortunately, if there’s no audible markings, blind and visually impaired pedestrians tend to avoid this type of place.
6. Navigate their way among active mobility as blind and visually impaired pedestrians
We’ve just mentioned active mobility and there’s another situation that can be difficult to apprehend for blind and visually impaired pedestrians: shared streets.
Areas with different means of transport and active mobility: cyclists, scooters, motorists, streetcars…
In this situation where traffic lights and accessible pedestrian signals are missing, pedestrians with visual impairments need to be able to navigate in a “comfort zone”.
It consists in creating an obstacle-free pedestrian route. The goal is to enable all pedestrians to move around safely. In a comfort zone, pedestrians don’t run the risk of colliding with other users.
You now know 6 situations that can potentially be difficult for blind and visually impaired pedestrians while crossing the street. And you also have accessibility guidelines to make their mobility easier.
Want to know more about accessible pedestrian signals? Check out these articles:
Published on June 3rd, 2022
The point is for blind and visually impaired people to properly hear the audio information provided by the APS without covering ambient sound.
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