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Crosswalks signal steps toward safety

Florida law says drivers must yield to pedestrians in crosswalks. Break the rule, and it can be an $80 moving violation.

Soon, it will be easier for pedestrians to be seen, city officials hope.

This month, engineers are finishing up design work to install 20 electronic signal boards that will hang over crosswalks. When a pedestrian pushes the button, a little walking person will appear on the sign along with a big set of eyes that show which way the pedestrian is headed.

The first signals will be put up in April.

To explain what's going on, the city will mail a brochure about the signals with everyone's water bill just before the first ones are put in.

Some are happy about the change. Some think it will do little good, either because they fear it will distract drivers or because they don't believe drivers know the law _ that they must yield to pedestrians in a crosswalk.

Florida has the highest rate of pedestrian fatalities in the nation. Just last week, a man was hit and killed near the Northeast shopping center. In 2002, five people died in St. Petersburg due to pedestrian-vehicle accidents.

The new crosswalks are called Intelligent Transportation System (ITS) or Roving Eyes (because of the way the electronic eyes dart back and forth to alert drivers).

The Roving Eyes signals are 3 feet high, 6 feet wide and hang 15 feet off the ground on mast arms. They will be installed at intersections and in between streets and avenues. There is also a light at the bottom of the sign that illuminates the white crosswalk to improve visibility at night.

Along with St. Petersburg, three other major cities in the country plan to have the Roving Eyes installed this year: Miami, Las Vegas and San Francisco.

A year ago, Washington State officials installed two Roving Eyes in a town north of Seattle only to remove them last year because of the visual clutter and confusion.

"Citizens felt that they were not well understood by the motorists," said Mark Leth, an official with the Department of Transportation in Washington State.

One pedestrian was hurt and another was killed in separate accidents in that town.

"The problem in both cases was that the car in the first lane stopped for the pedestrian, but the car in the second lane didn't stop," Leth said. "Another issue was we educated the city about the signs, but people from other cities that came through Shoreline didn't know what to do when they saw the signs."

Officer Bob Jones of the St. Petersburg Police Department has been watching 10 areas since December where some of the signals will be installed.

"We are doing speed enforcement in different areas and have found that Ninth Avenue N has the highest rate of speeders," Jones said. "That's also where a few of the new crosswalks will be put in."

Lora Hunter, a 77-year-old resident of St. Petersburg, lives next to a school crosswalk on Ninth Avenue N where one of the signals will be installed.

"There are about 30 children who walk across the street with the school crossing guard every day from Mount Vernon Elementary," she said. "I think the new crosswalk is needed because it will help keep the guard as well as the children safe as they cross the street."

Sherman Gamble, a 35-year-old employee of Quickie Food Store on 15th Avenue S and Dr. M.L. King Jr. Street, wished the crosswalks came sooner.

"It will be very welcome, but it is a little too late. We've already had four deaths in the past five years because people were getting hit by cars," Gamble said. "We had petitions going to get safer crosswalks so I'm glad these ones are coming."

Some drivers feel that the Roving Eyes may do more harm than good.

Jason Langmyer, a 26-year-old husband and father of twin boys, drives down First Avenue S to get to work. He believes the signs will distract drivers.

"Drivers will be looking at the sign rather than looking for people on the road. It's taking more focus off the road than there needs to be," Langmyer said.

Relume Technologies, in Michigan, and the Center for Education and Research in Safety (CERS), based in Canada, co-developed the midblock crossing signals (Roving Eyes).

Michael McClear, president of Relume Technologies, said the signals alone cost $5,900 each, but that the total is about $40,000 per crosswalk after construction, wiring and installations is tallied.

He stressed the importance of education. "People need to know what it is," he said. "Or it will increase hazards instead of increasing safety."

Where the crossing signals will go

Dr. M.L. King Jr. Street S at 15th Avenue

First Avenue N west of 13th Street

Fourth Street N between Fifth and Ninth avenues

Central Avenue at 61st Street

22nd Avenue S east of 29th Street

Fourth Street N at Sunken Gardens

First Avenue S at 61st Street

First Avenue S at 60th Street

Ninth Avenue N at 45th Street

22nd Avenue S east of 23rd Street

62nd Avenue S at 20th Street

22nd Avenue N west of Fifth Street

Ninth Avenue N west of 25th Street

22nd Avenue N east of Seventh Street

Ninth Avenue N east of 26th Street

83rd Avenue N at Macoma Drive

22nd Avenue S west of 40th Street

58th Street south of Third Avenue N

Ninth Avenue N at 31st Street

First Street north of 36th Avenue N