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How people who are blind or visually impaired cross streets

Traditional techniques
Techniques and cues used in crossing streets are diverse and vary by the type of location and by the individual and his or her level of vision. Individuals who are blind or visually impaired often travel to unfamiliar areas and intersections and gather information from available sources.

Detecting the street
The first information needed by pedestrians who are blind is "Have I arrived at a street?" People who are blind or visually impaired use a combination of cues to recognize the street edge. These may include:
  • Curb or the slope of the ramp
  • End of building line and open sound of the intersection
  • Sound of traffic on the street beside them (the parallel street)
  • Sound of traffic stopping on the street they are approaching (the perpendicular street)
  • Presence of pedestrians
  • Presence of an intersecting sidewalk
Identifying the street
The next information needed for decision-making at unfamiliar intersections is: "Which street is this?"
  • This information is only occasionally provided in any accessible format.
  • Pedestrians who are visually impaired develop a mental map and keep track of where they are within that map, usually by counting blocks and street crossings.
  • Where necessary, and available, assistance may be sought from other pedestrians.
Analyzing intersection geometry
The next information needed is: "What is the geometry of this intersection?" including:
  • Is my destination curb straight in front of me, or must I angle to the left or right to reach it?
  • How many streets intersect here?
  • How wide is this street?
  • Should I expect to encounter any islands or medians as I cross this street?
  • Am I standing within the crosswalk?
This information may be immediately available to pedestrians having full vision, but it may not be possible for pedestrians who are blind to determine this information by listening to traffic patterns. Incorrect or missing information for any of these questions may result in missing the destination curb or median.

Analyzing the traffic control system
Next, pedestrians with visual impairments need to identify the type of traffic control system at this intersection:
  • Is this a signalized intersection?
  • Do I need to push a button to actuate the Walk interval? If so, where is the button?
  • Is the button close enough to the crosswalk that I will have time to position myself correctly at the crosswalk, facing my destination curb, before the onset of the Walk interval?
  • Which button controls the Walk interval for the street I want to cross?
  • Does it stop traffic on one street, or all traffic?
  • Do cars still turn during the Walk interval?
  • Is there a second button on the median that I must push?
  • Will there be a surge of parallel traffic telling me the Walk interval has begun? Will I be able to hear it over other, concurrent traffic sounds?
Techniques for gathering this information include listening to traffic patterns through several light cycles, and searching the sidewalk area for poles with pushbuttons. This task has become difficult or impossible at many intersections. Missing information for any of these questions may result in failure to use pedestrian push buttons and crossing at times other than the pedestrian phase.

Identifying the crossing interval
After determining the geometry of the intersection, aligning to face towards the destination curb, determining that the intersection is signalized and having pushed a button, where necessary, pedestrians who are blind need to know: "When does the Walk interval begin?"

In the most common technique utilized for crossing at signalized intersections, pedestrians who are blind begin to cross the street when there is a surge of traffic on the street parallel to their direction of travel.

Maintaining crossing alignment
Once the pedestrian who is blind has begun to cross the street, the next question is: "Am I headed straight towards my destination curb?"
  • Traffic going straight ahead on the parallel street provides helpful auditory guidance to many persons if it is present. In addition, pedestrians who are blind may use traffic waiting on the perpendicular street as a partial alignment cue.

  • Turning traffic can make it difficult to hear and align with the traffic traveling straight through the intersection.
In the absence of traffic on the parallel street, pedestrians who are blind are more likely to veer toward or away from the intersection.

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This site was developed under the sponsorship of the National Cooperative Highway Research Program.