They have a clunky sounding name — “rectangular rapid flashing beacons.” But the electronic crosswalk signs that have been popping up all over Tampa Bay in recent years have a clear purpose.
Transportation planners say they’re helping to prevent accidents in one of the nation’s most deadly regions for walkers and bikers. And they have plans to install even more of them.
The blinking, amber signals are designed for mid-block locations where people tend to cross the street illegally, even though an intersection is 200 feet or so down the road.
Pedestrians at those spots often are headed to high-demand destinations, so traffic engineers figure they’ll be crossing regardless. The goal is to create a logical walkway.
"You can put a traffic signal every quarter of a mile, but sometimes you still don't see people crossing where they should," said Hillsborough County traffic management engineer Brian Gentry. "If they’re actually doing it, you want to make it as safe as possible."
People who want to cross without walking to a traffic signal can hit the button, which activates a rectangular flashing light. The light, which flashes in an irregular pattern, indicates cars and bikes are required to stop until the pedestrian has crossed those lanes of traffic.
Hundreds of the special crosswalks now exist on popular roadways such as Gulf Boulevard along Pinellas County’s beaches, Fourth Street in St. Petersburg and Bayshore Boulevard in Tampa. However, many people still don't know exactly how they're supposed to interact with them.
Drivers make the mistake of not stopping when they should, or waiting longer than required. Some pedestrians hesitate to trigger the signal, not wanting to be rude for stopping traffic. Others don't push the button at all, not realizing the flashing beacon is the necessary signal to motorists.
"That's one thing we need to be doing more with is education, because people don’t understand how they should be using them," Gentry said.
Here are some tips for how to use these crosswalks safely.
• You must stop when the light is flashing and a pedestrian is crossing.
• You don’t have to stay stopped the entire time the light is flashing, only when someone is crossing. That's why the signals use an amber light, signaling caution, as opposed to a red light, which would indicate a complete stop.
• Once the person or bike clears through your side of traffic and is on the other side of the median, you can go.
• Make sure to push the button. The flashing light is what helps drivers realize there is someone crossing outside of an intersection.
• Take a defensive approach and scan the road to make sure vehicles are yielding before stepping into the roadway.
• Always make eye contact with the motorist before crossing.
Whit Blanton, executive director of Forward Pinellas, the county’s transportation planning agency, said he has observed that some pedestrians seem to feel bad about using the crosswalks.
"Generally, people tend not to want to impose any kind of delay on automobile traffic," Blanton said. "The perception is, 'I don't want to be perceived as a jerk if I'm a pedestrian or a cyclist. I'm courteous. I'm respectful.'"
But those crossing the street have every right to press the button and stop traffic, he said. That's why cities and counties spend $10,000 a pop to install the signals in hopes of making streets safer.
St. Petersburg resident Steve Miller said the signals are a great concept but don't always work well in real life. Miller, 31, said he's seen cars wait in front of a flashing light, even when no one is crossing. He pointed to the crosswalk at Sundial in downtown St. Petersburg, where the beacon flashes constantly, as an example.
"Cars will stop at them when no one is around and just sit there," Miller said.
Val Boyle, 63, of Palm Harbor, spoke positively about the beacons, saying too many drivers have become complacent regarding standard crosswalks and can disregard them. The light helps grab their attention, she said.
But some drivers expressed frustration about the crosswalks being installed outside of intersections where people might not expect them.
"I’m having a hard time adjusting to random spots, not at intersections, on roads I’ve traveled for years without them," said Melissa Wild, 33, of Dunedin.
Mark Calvert of Tierra Verde shared Wild's concern, saying problems arise in the period after the new crosswalks are installed, before drivers are accustomed to them.
"They may get a sudden flashing and slam on the brakes, or not be aware and barrel through," Calvert, 59, said.
Despite those concerns, the lights are highly effective, with a compliance rate of 85 to 90 percent in Pinellas, depending on the location, Blanton said.
"People are responding to these," he said. "In general, people aren't blowing through these signals."
Contact Caitlin Johnston at email@example.com or (727)-893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.