Usually I support most efforts designed to foster a good pedestrian atmosphere, but the flashing yellow crosswalk signals used throughout this country needlessly create uncertainty among drivers and a false sense of security among pedestrians. Flashing yellow signals should be used to warn of pedestrian crossings and to create a general awareness of pedestrians (see post on 5 points in Athens), but they shouldn’t be used to command a stop. Though the intention is good, this is a case of attempting to satisfy both parties and actually satisfying neither.
A yellow light simply doesn’t make sense for drivers. The flashing yellow lights come with a sign that says “stop when flashing” or “stop for pedestrians in crosswalk” or some strange combination of the two. Traditionally yellow means slow down, be cautious, or be prepared to stop; it never commands you to stop. That’s why we have red. A red light and a red stop sign command you to stop. We are so familiar with this that almost every society (maybe every society) uses red to command a stop and no further explanation is needed. The yellow crosswalk signals are designed to make you stop for pedestrians and legally require you to stop. Because we generally interpret yellow to mean be cautious or slow down, we don’t really take law seriously. The law commands us to stop, but we are presented with a sign that doesn’t usually mean that.
Drivers are forced to make a quick decision based on the law and their natural intuition to treat yellow as a cautionary color, which usually results in a panicked and distressed driver. This isn’t a good situation for a pedestrian, especially since the light and crosswalk is supposed to provide some sense of security. The problem is particularly true when the general driving atmosphere in the area is not one that forces a driver to be overwhelming cautious. A larger highway with speeds of 40mph or higher is usually a very structured system that allows drivers to concentrate on only a few distractions: other vehicles and traffic lights or merging traffic. The sudden illumination of a light that demands a stop requires a driver to make a quick decision in an atmosphere that doesn’t usually call for such decisions.
Placing this type of traffic signal in this situation is dissimilar to placing such a signal in a denser, urban area. This type of atmosphere entails slower speed limits making it easier to quickly stop and provides a driver with a plethora of distractions. A denser area has constant traffic lights and stop signs, plenty of pedestrians crossing the street, both legally and illegally, and the general distractions associated with street life. Some cities even have shared streets, which give neither a car nor a pedestrian the right of way forcing everyone to always be aware. In my experience, Washington State doesn’t place any stop signs at minor residential intersections forcing everyone to be cautious all the time (perhaps this created the portrayal of the always overly cautious northwest driver). A driver is already extremely cautious in more urban environments, so the introduction of a signal that suddenly demands a stop isn’t quite as jarring as it would be in an environment that doesn’t force a driver to be overwhelmingly cautious.
But even in a denser, more urban environment the flashing crosswalk signal is inappropriate. The other devices we use to demand a stop are traffic lights and stop signs. These are both devices that allow drivers to prepare for a stop. We know the traffic light is going to change at some point and it warns us when it’s about to demand a stop. A well-placed stop sign is visible for hundreds of feet before we reach it giving us adequate time to prepare. The flashing crosswalk signals are equivalent to a traffic light that has neither a green nor yellow light and just suddenly illuminates red. Those signals would clearly be unacceptable, so why do we accept these signals?
The best case scenario is to treat crosswalks like ordinary traffic intersections and provide a full traffic light. This is something we are all used to and provides adequate warning for drivers and more security for pedestrians. Obviously this is going to cost more money because the light needs to be constantly illuminated and it is inevitably going to slow down traffic. The flashing yellow crosswalks allow drivers to proceed once the pedestrian is clear, allowing traffic to stop for a minimal amount of time. But they also require drivers to slam on brakes, which causes many other problems. These signals do cost less money, but they create problems not associated with traditional traffic signals.
The monetary savings may be great, but if pedestrians think these lights provide them safety and venture into the crosswalk when drivers think stopping is just discretionary, is this a good thing? If pedestrians just decide not to use them because they know drivers don’t take them into account in the same way they would take a red light into account, are we just wasting money? If we’re gonna spend money on this, we might as well spend a few extra dollars and actually provide the intended safety.