New traffic signals can be difficult for residents and out-of-town visitors to become acquainted with. Two signals recently added to Laramie’s two busiest roads could be leaving motorists — as well as pedestrians — wondering what to do when the beacons prompt action.
HAWK beacons, which stand for High-Intensity Activated crossWalK, were installed at the intersections of Grand Avenue and 19th Street and Third and Shields streets in August 2014. A spokesperson from the Wyoming Department of Transportation, responsible for traffic signals on Grand Avenue and Third Street, said he is aware not all who use the signals are completely sure what they are supposed to do when driving through or crossing the intersections.
“We recognize there’s some confusion out there,” said Ross Doman, spokesperson for WYDOT. “This is the kind of thing where you have potential for real problems between cars and pedestrians.”
Though the signals are different in appearance from traffic lights or more conventionally recognized pedestrian crossing beacons, Doman said they function essentially the same.
The signals are only activated when a pedestrian uses the push-button, initiating the beacon signals. Otherwise, it remains dark for motor vehicle traffic. When the button is pressed, approaching drivers will see flashing yellow beacons, cautioning them to reduce speed as they will be prompted to stop for pedestrians. The flashing yellow is followed by a solid yellow signal, then solid red, which prompts drivers to come to a complete stop at the line painted in the road.
When the signal for traffic to stop is activated, pedestrians receive a “walk” signal with a timer, such as might be seen at conventional traffic lights. After being sure the crosswalk is clear of moving traffic, pedestrians should proceed through the intersection.
After the “walk” signal expires, a “don’t walk” signal appears. At the same time, motorists will see an alternating, flashing red signal, similar to flashing red signals on traffic lights after 11 p.m. weeknights. While the signal is flashing a red light, motorists should make sure the crosswalk is clear of pedestrian traffic, and then proceed.
The flashing red signal is generally is what has caused confusion, Doman said. Motorists who assume they should remain stopped during the flashing red beacon might be dismayed when others proceed through the crosswalk — even if the way is clear.
“It’s understandable, because when it’s flashing red, it looks like a railroad crossing,” Doman said.
An alternating red signal at railroad crossing prompts drivers to stop, and wait until the gate has lifted and beacon has deactivated before proceeding.
“Some people who don’t know think, ‘Maybe the person going (through the intersection during the alternating red light signal) is breaking the law,’” Doman said. “But in this instance, it’s OK to go through.”
WYDOT has made multiple attempts to provide information on the HAWK beacons to the public, including two press releases and a television spot, Doman said. But he said he knows not everyone encountered the information, and because Laramie receives a lot of visitors who might never have encountered a HAWK signal, it can be hard to expect everyone to adapt right away.
“It’s our duty to try to get as much information out so people understand,” Doman said. “We’re trying to do it in different ways and we’re still educating people — we’re happy to do it.”
When WYDOT decides to install a signal, there are specific standards which need to be met.
For the crossing at Grand Avenue and 19th Street, the presence of the dorms and university, as well as proximity to other opportunities to cross the street in the area, necessitated the HAWK beacon.
Ark Regional Services, 1150 N. Third St., has many clients who cross the busy intersection throughout the day, said Shirley Pratt, Ark president and CEO. The installation of the HAWK crossing beacon has been “invaluable for the folks that receive support from the Ark, in terms of independence and safety, she said. For many years, Ark had a staff person with a flag and vest at the intersection to guide Ark clients through, which Pratt said was “a hazardous job.”
“For the folks we support, it’s been a huge boost in independence to be able to give people an opportunity to cross the street in a safe manner,” Pratt said.
Pratt said Ark worked with WYDOT for many years to improve the safety of crossings for the people they work with, and gave WYDOT “kudos” for choosing the location.
“The HAWK was a game-changer,” Pratt said.
From their recent observations, Pratt said Ark staff noticed some confusion on the part of motorists during the alternating red signal.
“If it’s flashing red, just stop and make sure everything is good to go,” before proceeding, she said.
HAWK beacons have been used in other Wyoming communities, such as Lovell and Pinedale. A U.S. Department of Transportation study for the Federal Highway Administration published in 2010 showed research indicating some preliminary effectiveness in improving safety in Tucson, Arizona. At the time of the study, there were more than 60 HAWK signals in place throughout Tucson.
Results of the study, which examined data from 21 sites with HAWK beacons and 102 intersections with no signals, showed a 29 percent reduction in total crashes and a 69 percent reduction in pedestrian crashes, both of which were statistically significant findings.
Though a community such as Tucson might have more “conflicts with traffic” than Laramie, Doman said he did not think there is any reason Laramie should not see similar results.