Some Audible Traffic Signals Are for the Birds

by Bob Branco

It is required by law that municipalities provide accessibility to blind pedestrians who cross busy streets, such as audible traffic signals. These signals are designed to let a blind person know when it’s safe to cross. I used them when I was a student at Perkins School as part of my mobility training, and I advocated for the installation of these signals at a busy intersection in my city back in 2003.

audible traffic signal

During my mobility lessons at Perkins, I discovered that the audible traffic signal was either a loud bell or buzzer, indicating when it was time to cross. As technology advanced, many audible traffic signals throughout the area were changed from bells and buzzers to chirping birds. In my opinion, this was a major mistake.

On June 9, 2017, the Perkins School class of 1977 met for our 40th reunion. Much of what we did that day was at Perkins and in Watertown Square, meaning that we had to cross busy streets. After taking a tour of Perkins, members of our class and our significant others walked to Watertown Square to have dinner at a quality restaurant. At one point, we needed to cross a major intersection, so we waited for the audible traffic signal. While we were waiting for the signal to sound, I heard some birds chirping overhead. For a split second, I thought that the chirping birds were from the audible signal, so I nearly began to cross the street. The real birds sounded exactly like the signal.

After my experience, I spoke with some officials in Watertown, the president of the Perkins Alumni Association, and representatives of an advocacy group for the blind. I requested that the chirping audible signals be eliminated because they are dangerously confusing to the blind population. I’d like to believe that I am fully aware of most of my surroundings, so if I didn’t know the difference between real birds and those associated with the audible traffic signal, my concerns are quite valid. What was so wrong with bells and buzzers? They served their purpose. They were a definite indicator that it was time to cross the street.

I have good news. According to various people who are affiliated with orientation and mobility, the chirping bird signals are going away. I just hope that engineers don’t get too cute and design another fancy audible signal for us to use. Let’s keep it simple. Bells and buzzers are just fine. There is no need for engineers to get excited about the new technology. Tradition and simplicity always work.

According to Meg Robertson, director of orientation and mobility with the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind, the bird chirping sounds are no longer manufactured. Actually, they were designed for APS, and were a standard sound that we could choose from. These were on the Pedhead devices which were placed above the walk signal unit. They are no longer manufactured, as all APS need to be integrated into the push-button units.

About the Author

Robert T. Branco resides in New Bedford, Massachusetts, and is the author of five self-published books. He is a community organizer, tutors persons with visual impairments, has written columns for local and international organizations, and publishes a monthly online newsletter, The Consumer Vision. Bob’s website, with full information about his books, is http://www.dldbooks.com/robertbranco/.

Related: The Evolution of Schools for the Blind

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