When vehicles mostly do not stop on red at a traffic signal, of what use is an audible signal for the blind?

A report in the media this morning says the Chennai City Traffic Police will work (again) on putting up audible traffic signals to help blind pedestrians. Although the CCTP had earlier tried out 'pilot' projects, they have broken down and are forgotten. Many years ago, in the 90s, our traffic police tried a 'pilot' on pedestrian actuated signals on the Kamarajar Salai near the Marina, and that too was quickly forgotten. Technology does not seem to work when it comes to pedestrian facilities (of course, signals in general did not work in Chennai until someone went to the High Court with a petition, and after that, some of them have flickered back to life. Most appear dented and broken).

The real issue is not the audible signal for blind pedestrians. It is the lack of safety for any pedestrian at such signals. If an able-bodied individual is unable to use a designated pedestrian crossing when it is his turn to walk, of what use is the audible signal?

It is actually an invitation to disaster, because the blind individual would assume it to be safe to cross on hearing the tick-tock sound, and the motorist, used to his indifferent ways, may not brake in time. Of course, it could function in the more prominent places, where there is a strong posse of police available, say Music Academy, Arts College, and so on. Such routes are usually those frequented by top politicians in power, and senior police officers.

In the interests of safety, the CCTP should avoid putting up audible signals that encourage blind people to cross, when it is unable to enforce pedestrian crossings even for sighted, able-bodied people. If you cannot get the universal design right, you cannot get a special system to work.

The real tragedy is that the City of Chennai has not invested much money for pedestrians since the days of economic liberalisation. In fact, it has hardly put up any worthwhile facility of pedestrians in these two decades plus, although the metropolis has expanded a lot. The subways in the city were all built (with the exception of the one at the airport) before the 'great economic liberation' in 1991. Despite the onslaught of hundreds of vehicles on the roads of this 'pattinam' in all these years, no one thought it fit to add more pedestrian subways, which are low cost, durable road safety investments. Of course, our shopping malls have good facilities within. It is only the public infrastructure that is decrepit.

Accessible Pedestrian Signals

The design and technical specifications for Accessible Pedestrian Signals appear to be evolving all over the world. In the United States, the city of San Francisco claims to have one of the leading initiatives in bringing safety to road crossings for the blind since 2007 with a massive APS programme worth 1.6 million dollars.

Besides beeping in sync with the green signal, the APS also incorporates other features, such as locator (which sends out a different sound so the blind pedestrian is able to locate the button to press), and even street name information.

According to the National Cooperative Highway Research Program in the United States, drivers of automobiles have become less attentive and more aggressive - also less willing to stop for pedestrians. At the same time, road geometry has also been changing, obliterating the traditional factors such as kerb height, corner shapes and zebra crossings that normally aid pedestrians - making it harder for the blind. Things are not much different in India either.

In the Chennai context, the experience with the Metro construction shows that manual control of traffic to help pedestrians works quite well generally, although there are some classes of drivers such as MTC bus crew who often disregard the Metro staffers' request to give way to walkers.

Would it not be better to have additional recruitment of traffic control staff to help pedestrians in the city, especially in the riskier places such as suburbs and at night? This will aid all classes of walkers, including the blind. In the inner city, the APS systems of good standard can be installed at manned junctions, which would help the visually impaired.