Mount Prospect crosswalk fatality begs question: What do studies say?
Reaction was swift and passionate to last week's column about cyclist Joni Beaudry, who died crossing Central Road in Mount Prospect when a driver failed to stop at a crosswalk.
At the center of the controversy is a "rectangular rapid flash beacon." A series of amber lights illuminate when a pedestrian activates the device to warn drivers someone is crossing.
Readers asked whether this was the wrong location for the device and if there are more effective ways to keep pedestrians and cyclists safe.
Some answers are elusive, but researchers have found a low compliance rate with the devices in Illinois, and data shows red beacons at crosswalks have a higher rate of success than amber ones.
Beaudry's family believes the amber beacon gave the mother of five "a false sense of security" that cars would stop on June 9. And many drivers and cyclists familiar with the crosswalk argued that the signal, located at Central and Melas Park, was doomed from the start because the road has a 35-mph speed limit and four lanes of traffic.
The signals are relatively new in Illinois but are popping up around the suburbs, including on Kirk Road in Kane County.
Rectangular rapid flash beacons "have been very effective in some locations," explained Kay Fitzpatrick, senior research engineer at Texas A&M Transportation Institute. "But it's not a panacea."
She co-authored a report on the amber flashing beacons titled, "Will You Stop For Me?"
Using data from studies of 16,716 vehicles at crosswalks equipped with amber beacons in seven states, including Illinois, researchers found on average 72 percent of drivers yielded to pedestrians. Interestingly, only 33 percent out of 1,402 vehicles yielded in Illinois.
Drivers tended to stop more frequently if the amber beacons were located overhead instead of alongside the road, near a school or transit stop, and on roads with fewer lanes, the study stated.
A different Federal Highway Administration report found a huge gap in drivers obeying amber beacons at crosswalks that ranged from 19 percent at one site in Illinois to 98 percent at a Colorado location.
Many engineers surmise that drivers stop less for amber beacons on higher-speed roads; however, there's no hard data to back that up yet, Fitzpatrick said.
Meanwhile, another type of crosswalk signal with a red light offers a promising track record. Known as a pedestrian hybrid beacon, the device typically hangs over an intersection and is dark until someone presses a button activating a yellow warning light, then a red beacon for drivers.
Studies of 3,504 drivers in Texas and Arizona showed 96 percent on average stopped.
Of course, nothing's perfect. Engineers note that some drivers who think the dark light is a broken traffic signal treat it like a stop sign, snarling traffic.
"Traffic engineering is harder than drivers may think," Fitzpatrick said.
And even when engineers think they've got it right, pedestrian and driver behavior comes to play at crosswalks in busy roads.
"I still think it's a no man's land. When I walk down a four-lane street and I'm at a crosswalk, no, I don't feel safe," DePaul University transportation professor Joseph Schwieterman said.
"There's a conflict between the nature of the road and the spirit of a crosswalk. Motorists aren't expecting it and fail to yield, and pedestrians feel empowered and oblivious to risk."
My inbox is full of readers' opinions on the amber beacons.
"If we want cars to stop we have to place a red light. Not a flashing yellow warning light of caution but tell them to STOP," Wauconda resident Sue Svizero wrote.
Janice Zemaitis, a teacher at Westbrook School near the crosswalk in Mount Prospect, finds it "to be very dangerous. The traffic on Central drives over the posted 35 miles per hour, and is very aggressive."
And John Conway, who works in South Elgin, described a similar signal on Kirk Road and the Prairie Path in Kane County. "Whoever designed them must not walk, drive a car or ride a bicycle. To think auto traffic is going to stop at a yellow flashing light is ridiculous. We have all been trained that yellow is a caution light, not a stop light."
One more thing
Illinois Department of Transportation and Mount Prospect engineers along with state Rep. David Harris met last week to talk about the Central Road crosswalk.
Harris, who witnessed a near-miss there recently, said possible actions include installing another warning light in the median, a speed study, putting up signs warning pedestrians to be alert and adding a video camera to count driver compliance.
"There's a general recognition the safety in this area for this crossing does need to be improved," the Arlington Heights Republican said.
IDOT will work with Mount Prospect to "review existing conditions and, if necessary, to provide recommendations of possible ways to further enhance the crossing," spokeswoman Gianna Urgo said.