By Erin Kaplan and Fritz Klug
The safety of roundabouts for the visually impaired has become an important topic of a study for Western Michigan University researchers.
Hired by Oakland County, the researchers will conduct studies at roundabouts on Maple and Drake roads and also Maple and Farmington roads — both in West Bloomfield, Mich.
These tests are part of a larger, comprehensive nationwide study that has worked with five other universities. In 2000, Richard Long and his team, which includes traffic engineers, psychologists and rehabilitation professionals, received $11 million in funding through the federal National Eye Institute to study access issues related to challenging traffic situations for the blind. In 2002 the team decided to study roundabouts.
The challenge for blind people and roundabouts is that there are no stop signs or red lights for cars traveling, according to Long.
“It’s hard to hear vehicles approaching a crosswalk since there’s so much noise in the area. Hearing far away vehicles can be pretty challenging,” Long said. “One solution is to put in signals designed for pedestrians that briefly stop cars to allow pedestrians to cross.”
According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, traffic intersections must be assessable for all users. This means finding a way to notify the visually impaired that they are at a roundabout.
“Engineers need to have a variety of options for intersection design,” Long said. “Our job is to help make those various options accessible.”
“We’re working on ways to make those intersections accessible and in metro Detroit,” he said. “What we’re working on is testing specialized traffic signals to add to roundabouts to help pedestrians cross safely.”
The first phase of pretesting took place in June. After the signals are installed, the team will go back in September and test the signal. Unlike a regular traffic signal, these will be blank until a pedestrian pushes a button. “Then the signal goes from flashing yellow to red and than back to flashing yellow… there is no green at all for the vehicles,” he said.
Long hopes that the signals will allow pedestrians easier access without plugging up the intersection.
“We think it will be effective although we need to see if it works for blind people and see how it affects the vehicles in the intersection,” he said.
But Long is not against roundabouts — saying that they have many safety advantages for motorists, such as reducing high-speed crashes and cutting back congestion at interchanges.
Troubles of traffic safety for the blind are not just limited to the setup of street crossings, but also the vehicles that travel on them. Long says that electric and hybrid cars make it harder for people that are blind or have low vision to hear when those automobiles are approaching.
WMU has one of 15 low vision programs in the nation, and it is one of the oldest and largest. The program teaches people with new or lifelong vision impairments safety, how to read Braille, and help them find jobs.
“I think it’s really important as a society that we consider the needs of all people and our research offers one example of how we as a society value people with disabilities and their ability to function in the world,” Long said. “It’s all about valuing people and access.”