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RRFBs: A False Sense of Protection

When Rectangular Rapid Flash Beacons (RRFBs) started appearing in Bloomington and Edina I thought they would be a huge improvement for pedestrian safety, but having used them numerous times I’ve realized they’re a compromise on safety and neither motorists or pedestrians are the winners. RRFBs are a safety device used at crosswalks in which a pedestrian or biker pushes a button to activate them. When activated there are yellow lights that flash rapidly to warn drivers that a pedestrian is trying to cross, and there are several problems with these devices.

Yellow is Not a Replacement for Red

The first issue with RRFBs is the lights are yellow, so motorists assume it means slow down or proceed with caution, but not come to a complete stop. Only when a pedestrian is in the street are motorists required to fully stop, and on busy roads its too much to ask for a pedestrian to step out into the road even if they don’t feel safe to begin crossing. For motorists who aren’t paying attention on county roads where there are almost no obstacles to look out for, it can be surprising to suddenly see flashing yellow lights, and they may proceed through the crosswalk or slam on the brakes when they suddenly realize a pedestrian is trying to cross. Just because motorists are required to stop when a pedestrian is in the crosswalk doesn’t mean they will when the lights are flashing yellow. When I’ve used RRFBs motorists don’t slow down, or they slow down but not to a speed where I feel comfortable crossing in front of them. Only a few have the courtesy of following the law and come to a complete stop.

Too Many Lanes to Cross, Too Little Time

The second issue are RRFBs on four-lane roads. You need all four lanes to stop, otherwise its not safe to cross. Just because one lane has stopped doesn’t mean all the lanes will stop at the same time, and motorists who have stopped may become impatient and keep going. Since you’re focused on making sure all the lanes have stopped, you’re less focused on checking to see if the lights are still flashing, and there is no way to tell how long the lights stay active.

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The RRFBs at Old Shakopee Road & Kell Avenue in Bloomington. Four lanes to cross with no refuge island and when traffic is busy and going 35 miles per hour (or higher, which is common), flashing yellow lights are not adequate protection for pedestrians.

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The RRFBs at York Avenue & Parklawn Avenue in Edina. There is a refuge island, but still not ideal considering you have to cross four through-lanes, one left-turn lane, and one lane for right-turn traffic and buses.

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Here’s a city that’s actually friendly to pedestrians. In Oslo, Norway where the roads are four or more lanes wide there are traffic signals at all crosswalks. The traffic engineers there realize they can’t expect pedestrians to cross without a solid red light.

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Even in suburban Oslo the pedestrian crossings are either grade-separated or protected with standard traffic signals on wide roads.

Walk in My Shoes Across this Dangerous Path

I attended a traffic management open house in Bloomington to complain about the RRFBs, but because the RRFBs I referred to are on county roads the city has little say. They did point out how much safer it is than before when it was just pedestrian signage, but RRFBs simply aren’t good enough. I’ve traveled through many Western European cities, and there was not one road with four lanes and a high amount of traffic going over 35 miles per hour where I had to cross at-grade and the only thing to show my presence was a sign or flashing yellow lights.

I would like the traffic engineers from Bloomington and Hennepin County to use these RRFBs themselves. Don’t tell me statistics about how great they are, if they’re so confident in these devices then they should use them to prove they’re effective. Here’s a task for them: Go to the RRFB at Old Shakopee Road & Kell Avenue, and use them five times for three periods. The first period is midday, when there is a high amount of traffic, but cars are still traveling at or above the speed limit. The second period is rush hour, when there is an extremely high level of traffic, people are rushing to get home, and crossing all four lanes in a single go is easier said than done. The third period is evening when the sun has set, but there is still plenty of traffic on Old Shakopee Road. Good luck crossing there in darkness. If they actually do this, and still stand by their stance that the RRFBs are good enough, then they clearly don’t care enough about pedestrian safety. If they actually realize how much of a wasted investment the RRFBs are, here’s what you replace them with:

-standard traffic signals; or

-HAWK (High-Intensity Activated crossWalK) signals

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Standard traffic signals, a proper device for crossing a busy four-lane road with no refuge island. These are located next to Olson Elementary School. If traffic engineers care so much about the safety of children crossing these types of roads, why don’t they care enough about every life? Just down the road at Jefferson High School the crosswalk is protected by RRFBs. I would not trust those devices to protect me when I’m crossing and school has let out.

HAWK signals, another acceptable device for crossing busy four-lane roads with no refuge island. Unlike RRFBs, HAWK signals have a solid red, so motorists must stop. These signals also have a countdown for pedestrians, so they know how long they have to cross the road before the signals turn yellow.

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A 2006 study showed that solid red lights were more successful at getting motorists to yield than other pedestrian crossing devices.

Cutting Costs, Cutting Lives

So why aren’t there more HAWK or traffic signals for crosswalks? For Hennepin County the lives aren’t worth saving due to the cost of installing these devices and adding time to motorists’ commutes. In fact, the county has even been reluctant to install RRFBs including the one at Old Shakopee Road & Kell Avenue. Their traffic engineers, and most politicians in Hennepin County, are focused on moving vehicles as quickly and efficiently as possible. Pedestrian and biker safety is nowhere near a high priority despite the increase in pedestrians and bikers and more emphasis being put on exercising and using non-motorized transportation to get to places. There is also the fact that motorists are protected by thousands of pounds of metal that can reach speeds of 100+ miles per hour, while bikers and pedestrians only have their flesh and bone (helmets won’t save them getting hit by a car) and their chance of survival getting hit by a car operating over 35 miles per hour is slim to none.

Politicians and traffic engineers may see it as unfair to have motorists wait for pedestrians, but waiting for a pedestrian at a HAWK or traffic signal only adds thirty seconds to their commute. That sounds much better than shaving seconds off their commute, and costing pedestrians their limbs or their lives.

Our state invests hundreds of millions of dollars annually to make motorists’ commutes just a little bit faster, but by comparison only peanuts are spent making walking and biking in our cities safer. City and county politicians and traffic engineers in the Twin Cities region may convince themselves that their communities are pedestrian- and bike-friendlier, but what I have seen shows we haven’t done enough and we are not even close to designating ourselves bike and walk friendly communities. If people want to feel safe walking or biking, don’t vote or hire people who compromise safety to save motorists seconds of their time and pretend they’re doing pedestrians a favor.

About Eric Ecklund

Eric has lived in Bloomington his whole life (besides 4 months studying in Oslo, Norway). With a Bachelors in Urban Studies from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, his future career is in transportation planning and he is heavily invested in Twin Cities transit from trying different bus routes to continuously examining how to improve the transit network in the Twin Cities.