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To Beep or not to Beep (or to Chirp or Whistle?)
Audible signals are one hot issue in the visually impaired community. "A major problem for vision impairments is the decision process in crossing the road," says Lois Thibault, Transporation Researcher at the Washington, D.C.-based Access Board. "Sighted pedestrians get information from the pedestrian greens that signal before the vehicle greens are given." To give visually disabled pedestrians the same access to this information, many cities have implemented audible signals.

Although many have found sound cues-- such as beeps, tones, or chirping noises-- to be helpful in signalling safe crossing, many who responded to the National Association for the Blind's survey voiced opinions to the contrary. Some were unable to localize the sound and confused it with another intersection. Some found it difficult to distinguish the sound at all during periods of heavy traffic. And some literally thought the sound was a real bird!

Dottie Neal is among those who find the the chirping cues to be detrimental. "If you're not trained in mobility anyway, you're not going to be able to use those. . . You really need good mobility training and even then it can be dangerous. There's only one place I've found that sound source to be helpful in my experience. When I lived in St. Louis there was a T intersection where they used it. All the traffic stopped in both directions so you knew you could cross. And everybody knew about it, it was a generally known thing."

Many transportation researchers agree that chirping signals may not be the answer. But other audible signals may be- if used correctly. Says Lois Thibault, "One of the current bees in my bonnet is the lack of usable information for visually impaired pedestrians. This survey and others like it [finding that signals are confusing] simply show that more information—more salient, consistent, standardized information is required. The reasons that it is not is that we as an industry have not really looked at these needs. It used to be that we looked at factors in transportation depending on how many people they were relevant to. In doing so, we ignored a significant portion of the population. "Sidewalks and street crossings are confusing enough for all of us. The right of way is not clearly defined. Most blind people don't get mobility training. To expect them to be accustomed to the differences in the ways that audible cues and other devices are used all over the country is just unrealistic."

Transportation facilities for the visually impaired vary hugely from city to city. Where some cities may have a few isolated intersections with audible cues or pedestrian "walk" buttons, others have highly advanced, user-friendly systems.

Both Thibault and Barbara McMillen, Transportation Specialist for the FHWA's Environmental Planning, commend the city of San Francisco, Calif. for their easy-to-use transportation facilities. "San Francisco has installed talking signs in their BART system and in downtown street crossings. They list street names and tell pedestrians when it's safe to cross. Municipal building signs list the names of the tenants on each floor. The talking signs are an expensive system to install, however. Cities should make sure that improvements work with their existing systems."

McMillen notes other cities with better facilities systems for the visually impaired, such as Austin, Tex. for its willingness to experiment with latest research improvements, Seattle, Wa., for its geometric layout, and Clearwater, Fla., a smaller city that has recently installed audible signals.

next page:  "I think we're asking a lot of blind and visually impaired pedestrians..."

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