High-tech devices watching over crosswalks in Mundelein
At first glance, the new crosswalk signs in front of Mundelein's Mechanics Grove Elementary School don't look all that different from signs at thousands of crosswalks across the country.
But when an array of intensely bright lights beneath the house-shaped, fluorescent-yellow signs start flashing, it's clear these aren't your everyday safety signals.
They are, in fact, rectangular, rapid-flashing beacons - or at least that's what police and transportation experts call them.
Their manufacturer calls them Enhancers, and they're designed to alert motorists to pedestrians entering the roadway ahead.
Last week, Mundelein installed Enhancers at crosswalks on Midlothian Road and Hawley Street. It's the first town in Illinois and one of the first in the nation to use them.
Although serious vehicle-vs.-pedestrian accidents are rare in town, proponents say they'd rather be extra safe and try to prevent a tragedy than act reflexively after one.
"Are we going to put up the guardrail before somebody goes over the cliff, or wait until someone goes over the cliff?" Mundelein Deputy Police Chief Cameron Eugenis said. "We really think this is a big deal."
The Enhancers were developed by a Florida company called R.D. Jones' Stop Experts. Owner Richard D. Jones, is a former Mundelein paid-on-call firefighter and public works employee who got the idea for the signs from the growing use of light emitting diodes, or LEDs, in the red-and-blue light bars atop police squad cars.
The solar-powered Enhancers also use LED lights, which typically are brighter, last longer and use less power than traditional bulbs. They flash at motorists 190 times in 30 seconds when activated and, at night, illuminate the signs and the crosswalks.
"Motorists are supposed to obey the law by stopping when they see a pedestrian in a crosswalk. But they don't always remember to do that," Eugenis said. "These units will help them remember."
A pedestrian triggers the lights by pressing a large red button on the sign post. A recorded female voice gives directions in English and Spanish, but they're also printed on a placard on the post.
The Enhancers first were used in St. Petersburg, Fla., in 2006, and they work: A Federal Highway Administration study showed proper yielding to pedestrians in that city increased to more than 80 percent at most sites with the devices.
Additionally, pedestrian accidents and injuries have decreased 17 percent annually, said Joe Kubicki, St. Petersburg's director of transportation and parking.
"We are extremely pleased with the Enhancers' operation here in St. Petersburg, and our citizens have been quick to adopt (them)," Kubicki said.
In Mundelein, the devices were installed in three spots: on Midlothian Road at Killarney Pass Circle, which is at Mechanics Grove School but also near the Fremont Public Library; on Midlothian at Idlewild Avenue, which is on the east side of Mundelein High School; and on Hawley Street at Atwater Drive, which also is near Mundelein High.
No others are planned.
Pedestrian traffic can be heavy at the three crossings because they're near schools, the library and many homes. Police are concerned about safety at the locations because the crosswalks are on busy streets and aren't near safer, stoplight-equipped intersections.
"We needed to do something," Eugenis said.
Two sign posts have been installed at each crosswalk, at a cost of nearly $24,000 per site, Mundelein Public Works Director Kenneth Miller said. That's much less expensive than traditional electricity-based signals, he said.
After only a few days of service, Miller was impressed with the devices.
"Over the years I've seen people make mad dashes across Midlothian Road," he said. "But since the units went in, there's been a huge improvement in the reaction of the motorists in yielding. I think you're going to find that this is going to be a new wave of pedestrian assistance."
Mundelein has taken steps to improve pedestrian safety at crosswalks before. In 2003, motion-activated warning lights were installed in a crosswalk on Butterfield Road north of Route 45.
Lake County Traffic Engineer Tony Khawaja expects more local communities will install Enhancers once they gain broader state and federal approval.
Transportation officials across the country are catching on already. In addition to St. Petersburg, they're used in Florida's Miami-Dade County and in Washington, D.C., and they're headed to New Jersey, Las Vegas and other locales, Jones said.
"We feel it is the best product on the table right now (for) crosswalk safety, short of a traffic signal," St. Petersburg's Kubicki said. "We strongly encourage its consideration for other communities with pedestrian crosswalk issues."