Improve Signs, Lights, and Signals at Crosswalks

A sign warns drivers to yield to pedestrians in crosswalks at a marked crosswalk in Morgan Hill, Calif.Warning signs and lights can help alert unfamiliar motorists to the presence of pedestrians who may be crossing the street. Warning signs should be used at locations where drivers may not typically expect pedestrians to cross and at locations where school children frequently cross. Signs that integrate LED lights and/or other types of lighting such as flashers can also increase the awareness of drivers to the presence of pedestrians and, used in combination with other crosswalk treatments, can increase pedestrian safety.

Warning signs can provide important information to improve road safety if used properly, consistently, and if they are not over-used. If motorists know what to expect, there is a greater chance that they will behave properly. Signs should be used judiciously, as overuse breeds noncompliance and disrespect. Too many signs may also create visual clutter and important signs can get lost.

Sign basics

Traffic signs can be either "regulatory", "warning", or "guide" signs. Regulatory signs, such as STOP, YIELD, or turn restrictions require certain driver actions and can be enforced. Warning signs can provide helpful information, especially to motorists and pedestrians who are unfamiliar with the area. Guide signs provide direction or location information.

Examples of signs that may help pedestrians include warning signs for motorists, warning signs for pedestrians, pedestrian push button signs, NO TURN ON RED signs, and guide signs. Advance pedestrian warning signs should be used where pedestrian crossings may not be expected by motorists, especially if there is a high number of motorists who are unfamiliar with the area.

A new, brighter fluorescent yellow/green (FYG) color is allowed for use in pedestrian, bicycle, and school warning signs. All signs should be periodically checked to make sure that they are in good condition, free from graffiti, reflective at night, and continue to serve a purpose.

Overhead signs

One study, the Effects of Innovative Pedestrian Signs at Unsignalized Locations: A Tale of Three Treatments on the use of an overhead sign in Seattle reading "Crosswalk," showed that the treatment was effective in encouraging motorists to yield to pedestrians and reducing the percentage of pedestrians who ran, aborted, or hesitated while crossing.

Overhead signs and lights warn drivers of a crosswalk  in Phoenix, Ariz.According to an FHWA study, The Effects of Traffic Calming Measures on Pedestrian and Motorist Behavior, raised crosswalks combined with an overhead flashing light increased pedestrian visibility and the likelihood that the driver yields to pedestrians. A study that examined the effect of crosswalks with a combination of high-visibility treatments (an overhead sign reading "Crosswalk" along with a crossing island and pedestrian crossing sign) on motorist behavior found that drivers were 30 percent to 40 percent more likely to yield to pedestrians at the treated locations when compared to untreated locations.

A white line marks where drivers should yield to pedestrians in the crosswalk at a marked, midblock crossing.Advance yield markings

Advance yield markings can result in safer crossings for pedestrians since motorists stop further back from the actual crosswalk location, thereby improving visibility between the pedestrian and motorists in adjacent travel lanes.

The markings that were found to be most effective were yield markings coupled with a regulatory sign indicating where drivers are to yield or stop for pedestrians. These markings help prevent against multiple threat crashes, which involve a vehicle in one lane yielding to a crossing pedestrian while the driver of an approaching vehicle (in the same direction) in an adjacent lane strikes the pedestrian. In these instances, the motorist is usually not aware of the crossing pedestrian since the pedestrian is shielded by the yielding vehicle.

Flashers

Flashing yellow warning beacons, commonly called flashers, are frequently requested in the belief that they will reduce vehicle speeds and improve safety. Flashing beacons generally can be helpful when they are used to alert a driver of an unexpected condition that is not readily apparent, such as a pedestrian crossing beyond a curve or crest of a hill. To be effective, flashers must command respect of the drivers. Warning flashers can be mounted over the road or along the side of the road, and when used should be used in conjunction with advance warning signs.

While less expensive than traffic signals, flashers can be very costly. Studies in urban areas show that flashers typically result in little if any reduction in driver speeds. Even studies of flashers with speed limit signs (used to alert drivers of a lower speed limit when the flashing beacon is in operation) only resulted in about a three mph speed reduction. This is despite a regulatory speed limit sign requiring a 15 mph to 20 mph reduction when flashing at school zone locations.

When flashers are used improperly or are overused, they soon lose much of their effectiveness. If flashers are used, they should only flash during the times when crossings occur (e.g., such as during school crossing periods). This can be done with a time clock, pedestrian push button to activate the flasher, or through automatic pedestrian detection devices. Flashers can also be used with solar, wireless and microprocessor technology that can be easier to install than conventional systems.

In-pavement flashing lights or overhead lights

Flashing lights in the pavement alert a driver at night that a pedestrian is crossing the road at a marked, midblock crossing.Another type of flasher, in-pavement lighting in crosswalks, also known as flashing crosswalks and in-roadway warning lights, is being used increasingly in communities across the nation. In most cases, this technique involves imbedding a series of flashing lights in the pavement on the outlines of crosswalks that are activated by a pedestrian push button or an automatic pedestrian detector. The flashing lights in the pavement, which span the width of the entire roadway, can be accompanied by flashing lights in a warning sign at the crosswalk.

Flashing crosswalks are approved in the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices for marked crosswalks that are not controlled by traffic signals, STOP signs or YIELD signs. Though not recommended for wide, high-speed streets, a before and after study in Kirkland, Washington, found that in-pavement crosswalk warning lights were effective in encouraging motorists to stop for pedestrians during the day time and especially at night. In this study, the percent of motorists who stopped for pedestrians using the crosswalk increased anywhere between 30 percent and 84 percent.

Improving overhead lighting can also improve safety and security for pedestrians. Overhead lights should be at the pedestrian level and should not be placed in a location that would block access to sidewalks or curb ramps.