“Those *#!? blinking lights”
This is the subject of an email I received a few months back.
Finally, the lights in question, formally known as “RRFB”s or Rectangular Rapid Flashing Beacons, were installed in August, already a few weeks ago now. (I admit I like *#!? lights better than the formal name :))
At a crosswalk in my small hometown of Norwich, VT, instead of just a yellow image of a pedestrian crossing the street, above that yellow image is now 2-3 small rectangular lights that blink ONLY when someone pushes the button to cross the street. It’s pretty discreet when not in use, most people didn’t notice when I asked.
With all of the outcry from a certain List Serve, which I’m starting to think people believe is the full name of a 6th member of the Selectboard, an outsider might believe that we had forced Dan & Whit’s to sell to Dollar General, and that the Selectboard planned to personally keep a majority of the proceeds. In fact, over the past days and weeks, as I read the continuing accusations of breaking the law, the disgust people feel when they drive through town, the ruination of our town character, the failure of parents to teach kids how to “properly” cross a street, the yearning for the old days, I often force myself to ask myself, and others: “Why did we do this? What were we thinking?”
It doesn’t take long to remember. Seconds usually. I think of the dozens of kids who have spoken out in favor of these blinking crosswalks. The many families I know who don’t give the matter a second’s thought because its a no-brainer in their minds. I even think of my own father, now 81, who can’t recall the details but says that when he stays at the Norwich Inn and has to cross Main Street, it’s “uncomfortable”. Even based on that recollection he was happy to hear that this safety precaution had been installed.
“Norwich doesn’t want the blinking lights”, wrote one citizen who apparently believes they know Norwich as nobody else does. Others followed:
“I’m pretty disgusted that this was foisted on us without a referendum“, wrote one.
Another accuses us of breaking State law, and then says its “a good way for the town to cost lower and moderate income citizens to lose their homes due to excessively high taxes“. Aha, the crosswalks reveal the SB’s secret agenda … (did you look at this past year’s budget debates?)
“Teach kids how they should really cross the street!” demanded others. This is a good one, I thought. It turns out that most of our children will not live in Norwich for their entire lives, and that in the majority of settings the proper and legal way to cross the street is to go to a crosswalk that often has a traffic light and push a button. Wait for traffic to stop. Cross looking both ways, including making eye contact with drivers, just to be sure. Anything else is considered jay walking and in some cities can land you a hefty citation. So, really, this argument is not good. We have a lot of streets in Norwich – practically all of our streets – where looking both ways still applies, but on Main Street, like other busy thoroughfares, jaywalking probably isn’t the best lesson to be teaching our kids.
At some point, a thoughtful citizen shared an alternative – cross walk flags – and I’ve done a decent amount of research on this and here’s what I’ve found. Most towns added these flags because they either couldn’t get funding for what Norwich has today, or because even with crosswalks and lights pedestrians didn’t feel safe and so they added the flags to further increase safety. In no case that I’ve found has the solution been deemed adequate on its own, including our neighbors in Middlebury Vermont where the chair of the Selectboard and I, both on respective vacations, spoke at length about what had prompted them to start with the flags (one pedestrian hit followed by another pedestrian killed) and as soon as possible move to RRFBs which is what they have now. Jackson Hole (Wyoming) has flags in addition to traditional stop lights and crosswalks. And the town of Dartmouth, Nova Scotia literally installed 150 sets of flags throughout the city which is where a lot of research on their efficacy has come out of. As one might expect, the safest alternative is to have the flags available and for them to be used. The second safest is to not have them at all, and the pedestrian crosses on their own skills and intuition (aka Norwich prior to late August). The least safe is that the flags are installed and not used, which unfortunately is apparently the case all too often. A varying but alarmingly low number of pedestrians use the flags after a period of time, and even those who do are often stuck without flags on one side since they’ve been bunched up on the other side by prior walkers crossing in the same direction.
That all being said, there are some interesting places in Norwich that might benefit from these flags where the RRFBs aren’t planned. I’ve taken the liberty of personally ordering a set and have (illegally I will very likely be told) installed it on a street sign on my property just past the bridge on Elm Street just to see what they look like. Feel free to drive by and take a look. I will see if the powers to be (town management, police, majority of Selectboard) would want to test them in any fashion. It could be a great augmentation to the effective RRFBs, er ” *#!? lights”, that have now been installed for two of the other crosswalks (assuming, of course, we use them!)
In closing, one gentleman pointed out twice to our 6th Selectboard member, sorry, the List Serve, that “Unfortunately I have seen many people crossing both locations without giving a thought to activation the lights, one with a small child in tow.” He knows that “one with a small child” was me, with my 6-year old son Bo. He yelled at me as he passed by, but I was unable to tell him as he continued driving why I had done this. Luckily another gentleman posted something that helps: “I prefer making eye contact with oncoming vehicles, waiting for them to stop and then crossing…..usually giving a wave to the driver in appreciation for their courtesy.” That morning, as Bo and I approached the cross walk en route to MCS I looked at the traffic and happened to lock eyes with one of the drivers who stopped well before we got to the crosswalk. When I looked at the other side of the street, the driver of that car also was looking at us and motioned for us to cross. I waved and we dashed across secure in that both sides had stopped, eye contact made, waves shared. A car a few back from this is the one who called across “Why didn’t you use the lights John!” and then posted about it twice in a way that made it seem as though I (he didn’t name me) had just flagrantly crossed with no care in the world. Nothing could be further from the truth. I, too, wish that what I experienced that morning was the norm. But it’s not. As someone who uses downtown as a pedestrian nearly every day, who watches the streams of kids using the crosswalks every day, I feel certain the right thing has been done, and done in a manner that follows the law and respects the wishes of the majority of the citizens of Norwich.