Source: Sherman Publications

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Responsibility runs both ways at trail crossings

by CJ Carnacchio

October 26, 2011

Although they've been up and operating for months now, it seems some folks still have questions and concerns regarding the pedestrian crossing signals located where the Polly Ann Trail intersects W. Burdick and W. Drahner roads in Oxford.

"We have received complaints . . . both from pedestrians and from motorists," said Craig Bryson, spokesman for the Road Commission for Oakland County. "Pedestrians saying that cars don't stop when the flashing lights are on. (Motorists) complaining that they have to stop and back up traffic."

Each trail intersection has two beacons designed to warn motorists they are approaching a pedestrian crossing by using yellow LED lights that flash for 15 seconds.

Pedestrians manually activate these solar-powered signals by pushing a button. Until activated, they remain unlit.

The signals were paid for with a $50,000 Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant awarded to Oxford Township last year.

There seems to be some confusion on the part of both motorists and pedestrians as to exactly what's expected of them when these beacons are flashing.

Activating the beacons does not give pedestrians (i.e. trail users) the right to automatically begin crossing the road, regardless of the traffic situation.

"One of the messages we'd like to get to those people is you still have to wait for traffic to clear," Bryson said. "Don't foolishly walk out in front of oncoming traffic and assume that they're going to stop."

"Under current law in Michigan, it is the responsibility of the pedestrian to make the decision as to the appropriate time to cross when they determine there (is) an acceptable gap in traffic," wrote RCOC Traffic Engineer Charles Keller in an e-mail sent to township officials back in mid-June.

The beacon "does not require the motorists to stop for pedestrians waiting to cross and it does not give the pedestrians the right of way at the crossing," Keller wrote. "These devices are simply high level warning device(s) which give notice to the motorists of the potential for pedestrians to be occupying the crossing."

Although motorists are not legally required to stop just because the flashing beacons have been activated or a pedestrian is waiting to cross, Bryson indicated drivers are encouraged to do so if they can in a safe manner.

"Of course, we would like motorists to stop when they see the lights flashing and a pedestrian is present," he said. "That's the desire. That's the intent."

"In the interest of safety, we would hope that most motorists would look around to see if there's a pedestrian about to enter (the crosswalk) and would stop if there is," Bryson noted.

Michigan's motor vehicle code does require motorists to stop if there is a pedestrian moving inside a marked crosswalk.

Bryson stressed that motorists should not feel obligated to stop when the beacons are flashing, but there are no pedestrians either waiting to cross or moving inside the marked crosswalk.

"Say somebody pushed the button and then decided not to cross the lights are flashing, but nobody's there," he said. "The driver should make sure that nobody's there and then continue on their way. You don't have to come to a complete, full stop like it's a stop sign or a red light at an intersection."

But Bryson believes the instances in which the beacons are flashing, but there are no pedestrians present are few in number.

"I think the vast majority of times when the lights are flashing it because there is a pedestrian crossing or just finishing their cross," he said.

Bryson believes there's confusion over what to do at these flashing signals because "it's a relatively new thing."

"Traditionally, you had pedestrians crossing at intersections at corners (in) traditional crosswalks," he explained. "Now, with the increase in the number of pathways and equestrian trails across the county, we have this new situation where there are people crossing roads at places that are not traditional crosswalks.

"We're trying to resolve the issue making it as safe as possible for pedestrians while also reducing, or at least minimizing, the impact for motorists. And it is a challenge. It's not an ideal situation . . . This is a problem we have at pathway crossings across the county. It's an emerging problem and an on-going problem in a lot of cases."

Bryson noted there are similar pedestrian crossings with flashing beacons at Grand River Ave. in Lyon Township and at a roundabout in West Bloomfield Township.

"The only real feedback I've heard is that sometimes drivers ignore them completely," he said. "I have not heard many complaints. I'm not sure that there's the same amount of pedestrian traffic (at these crossings). It may be simply a case where there's fewer people crossing and therefore fewer complaints."

An Oxford resident wanted to know if the Polly Ann Trail beacon lights could be changed to flash red, instead of yellow, because that's a color motorists typically associate with stopping.

Bryson explained that if lights were changed to red, they would be considered traffic signals, which would put them "under a whole bunch of requirements" and lead to "significantly increased costs."

"For example, the light has to be above the road (which means) the cost would have gone up dramatically for the township," he said.

A traffic signal costs roughly $75,000, according to Bryson, so it would have cost approximately $150,000 to install them at both trail intersections.

Bryson noted the road commission "offered" to "put a traditional signal there," but "the township did not want that" due to cost.