Guide Dog Class Lecture: Street Crossings
We would all agree that street crossings are a very important part of guide work. In order to make the safest crossing possible, it takes teamwork. This material discusses the elements of an actual street crossing, the language (or lingo) related to traffic and intersections, and what you can do as a handler to help things go well in the street. Part one covers general information about intersections, and part two covers important aspects of making a safe crossing with a guide dog.
Traffic and Intersections
During class, you will encounter a variety of traffic patterns and intersections. Let’s take a few minutes to review some terms that are useful for traffic analyses.
- Near parallel: Refers to the traffic in the closest lane to you. Vehicles can be traveling in the same direction as you or they can be oncoming. They should always be on the left or right side of your body.
- Far parallel: Refers to the lane of parallel traffic that is farthest away from you. This can be oncoming or traveling in the same direction as you.
- Perpendicular: Refers to traffic that is passing in front of you along the “cross street”.
- Time distance estimate: The ability to estimate distances traveled between two points. This capability is gained through experience and repetition.
- All quiet: No discernible traffic is near the intersection.
- All clear: Despite distant traffic noise you are able to initiate a safe crossing. Familiarity with the intersection is helpful in order to make an informed decision.
- Stop-sign intersections: Stop signs control either the parallel or the perpendicular street or both.
- T intersection: One street “dead ends” at a perpendicular street.
- Uncontrolled intersection: No traffic lights or signs are used to indicate the right-of-way. Traffic is commonly required to slow and give way to any traffic on the right. Common practice dictates that drivers will treat the intersection as if they have a yield sign and look both directions for cross traffic and pedestrians.
- Parkway: A common description for a grass, dirt or rock strip between the sidewalk and curb.
- Blended or flat curb: Refers to a curb that is rounded and is flattened to the street.
- Wheelchair ramp (also called a curb cut): The curb is sloped towards the street. It may align to the parallel or perpendicular street, but some face diagonally into the intersection.
- Left turn lane: A lane designated for left turns only. Some left turn lanes are advanced by a light signal, meaning that cars in this lane will proceed independently of other traffic.
- Parking lane: An inactive lane beside the curb, available for vehicles to park. This lane provides a buffer between you and the moving traffic.
In class, the street crossings that you will most often encounter involve:
- 2-way and 4-way stop signs;
- Traffic-lighted intersections;
- Off-set intersections;
- ‘T’ intersections;
- Stop Signs
When you approach a stop sign controlled intersection, the optimal time to cross is if it is all quiet. All clear would be the second safest time. The next best time to cross is with your near parallel traffic as it accelerates through the intersection after stopping.
Traffic engineers have a goal to keep vehicle traffic flowing. Pedestrian traffic is not their main concern. Changes in technology specific to lighted intersections make it more challenging for blind and vision impaired pedestrians to analyze and gain clear information.
Things to consider:
- Is there a predictable pattern to the intersection?
- Is there a signal controlled left turn only lane?
- Is the traffic signal reliant on the presence and volume of vehicles (is it “traffic actuated”)?
- Is there a pedestrian walk button and must it be pushed to gain enough time to safely cross?
- Is there an island to negotiate?
Because signals installed in recent years are computer controlled and change with traffic needs, some do not have a fixed-time predictable pattern. However, fixed time signals are still common in downtown areas due to fairly predictable and stable traffic flow. In these instances there will be a pre-timed, regularly repeated sequence.
Signal Controlled Left Turn Only Lanes
“Left turn only”, or “advanced left turn” lanes are often regulated with a signal light allowing that lane of cars to proceed independently of the other lanes. These cars are given the right of way to turn through an intersection while oncoming cars must wait.
Traffic Actuated Signals
Traffic actuated signals change their displays depending upon the presence of vehicles that trigger a pressure-sensitive pad in the road. Crossing busy streets at intersections that use this technology may be difficult since the signal for a pedestrian crossing may be abbreviated or non-existent in the absence of a vehicle that intends to make the same crossing. The major street remains green to keep the flow of traffic going, unless a vehicle on the minor street triggers the sensor pad. It is important to note that one vehicle triggering the sensor pad may only provide seven seconds to cross. Further, some signals are fixed-time during the day and actuated at night, or set with one timing for certain times of the day and set differently for other periods (rush hour vs. late evening).
Pedestrian 'Walk' Buttons
Sometimes it is necessary to use pedestrian walk buttons at specific crossings. If the walk button is not pushed, some light cycles may be too brief for a safe pedestrian crossing or the pedestrian walk interval may not be triggered at all. Some walk buttons include an audible signal to assist you with traffic reading.
Walk buttons are normally located on a pole near the corner area, but are not consistent as to their placement. Since your dog has been trained to clear poles and other obstacles, she will need to be shown specific poles that you wish for her to locate. Later in training, we will show you how to do this.
Longer crossings sometimes have an island mid crossing or one nearer the curb separating the turn-only lane from through traffic. It may be safest for you and your dog to either target the island or negotiate around it.
Unless you travel exclusively in environments of grid shaped city blocks, you will encounter off-set crossings. In these situations the up curb target is either to the right or left of the original line of travel, not straight ahead. Traffic flow may be difficult to interpret. In some cases the dog will be able to adjust their travel line without specific input from the handler. In more extreme cases, you will benefit by directing your dog to a different location on the down curb before initiating the crossing. Patterning and/or sighted assistance is an excellent option here.
Vehicles traveling toward the top of the ‘T’ will be forced to choose between turning right or left at the intersection, so you can expect them to stop or slow their speed. Vehicles traveling along the top of the ‘T’ may have no traffic control whatsoever, and might not expect a pedestrian to cross the street in front of them.
Uncontrolled intersections have no traffic controls and they may or may not have crosswalks. Drivers may not expect pedestrians to cross the road nor do they have an obvious reason to slow or stop at these intersections. Uncontrolled intersections or mid block crossings that are all quiet or all clear may be safe to cross. Some uncontrolled intersections may have a primary road with flowing traffic and intersecting secondary streets that are less traveled. If you are traveling along the primary road as your parallel street, you may cross the secondary streets after listening to determine there are no cars slowing to turn onto your cross street. If, however, you wanted to cross the busier primary road at an uncontrolled intersection it can be dangerous (even with a marked crosswalk). In these situations asking for help or choosing a different route may be your best bet. Traveling a few extra blocks to use a safer intersection is often worth the walk.
The variety and vagaries of modern street crossings are more than can be thoroughly discussed here. Your prior orientation and mobility training has educated you about traffic and street layouts. We will continue to build upon that as you learn to work with your dog. As usual, increased familiarity with any travel environment will help with decisions about when to cross streets safely.
Making a Street Crossing
Three essential elements of a crossing are:
- Alignment at the down curb- a straight curb approach will set you up for a good street entry.
- Traffic reading - carefully listening to traffic flow can confirm your alignment and will help determine the best moment to cross.
- Following position – Good following position allows the dog to lead you and maintain a true line.
As you approach the down curb, be attentive to your line of travel as it relates to auditory cues from your parallel traffic. As your dog approaches and slows for the curb, insist on a straight approach. As you near the curb obstacles on the corner may cause your dog to move slightly off the travel line. Be sure you feel your dog come back onto the original line of travel as you finish the approach to the down curb. Maintain your proper body alignment relative to the street.
At the Down Curb
- Locate the curb edge with your probe foot.
- Keep your probe foot planted on the curb edge, pointing it in the direction you intend to travel. Moving around at the down curb can be confusing to your dog.
- Using your auditory skills, listen to traffic and assess when it is appropriate to cross.
Note: The curb edge is primarily a stopping point, and cannot always be relied upon for alignment. Many curbs and wheelchair ramps are rounded in shape and may be misleading. If your alignment seems slightly off, you may turn or pivot your shoulders and hips to adjust. If you believe your alignment is grossly off, it may be best to re approach your down curb by working back down the block 15 paces and re-approaching (this is described in detail in the “Addressing Guide Work Errors” lecture).
Once you are ready to enter the crossing, give a confident command and wait for your dog to step into the street. Maintain following position throughout the crossing. When using your cane, you may have been instructed to increase your pace in the street. However, dogs usually keep a fairly consistent pace in the street and on the sidewalk so over-walking or rushing a guide dog can cause problems. If despite good following position, you believe that your dog’s pace is insufficient, or she does not seem to be driving to the up curb, you can say “curb” to emphasize your desire to reach the up curb quickly.
Completing the Crossing
One of the most important parts to a crossing is the praise and rewards you give your dog at the destination– the up curb and sidewalk! Praise motivates your dog to make more good crossings.
Further Considerations - Veering
There may be times when you notice that you are drifting or veering during a crossing. Some common reasons for leaving your line may be as follows:
- Weather conditions; wind, rain or snow can distort sound;
- Misuse of auditory cues (traffic sounds);
- Lack of left foot probe and straight body alignment at the down curb;
- Distractions (dog loses focus);
- Hesitating or “not going with" your dog after the forward command;
- Over-walking or rushing the dog;
- Or, the dog’s lack of drive.
- Techniques to deal with veering and re-working crossings are discussed in the lecture Addressing Guidework Errors.
Vehicles in the Crosswalk
If during your crossing you encounter an idling car blocking the crosswalk, allow your dog to hold her position and wait for the vehicle to pass before continuing the crossing. Do not direct your dog in front of or behind the vehicle. Your dog would have moved around it already if there was room to do so. Stay in the crosswalk where drivers expect pedestrians. Continue once the crosswalk is clear.
Handler Technique – Common Errors
- Rushing: Rushing your dog by stepping ahead of following position will be counterproductive and may interfere with your dog’s work. As stated earlier, dogs normally maintain a consistent pace on the sidewalk and in the street, and are not specifically taught to speed up for crossings. If you attempt to hurry your dog across by walking faster or ahead of her, you will, in fact, encourage the opposite - your dog may slow down. Stepping ahead can often force a dog to the left. This over-walking can also prevent your dog from making appropriate moves to the right (e.g. finding an offset up curb). And lastly, over-walking may interfere with your dog’s ability to negotiate pedestrians, parked cars, construction and, of course, moving traffic.
- Hesitation: Being reluctant to step into the street after your dog initiates movement will put you out of position and may result in your dog angling in front you.
- Indecision: A guide dog can become confused if you decide not to move after giving a “forward” command. There may be times when you instantly realize you’ve commanded your dog to cross when the traffic is against you. In this situation, you may halt your dog, heartily praise her up, and either remain in position (if still on the curb) or back up one step to the curb. Praising your dog at this time will help diffuse any confusion your dog may feel. When you are ready, re-evaluate the traffic situation. Canceling a “forward” command should be a rare occurrence. Careful traffic reading will reduce the number of canceled entries.
In general, once you have taken more than a couple of strides into a street continue with the crossing. Avoid turning around & going back! If you turn around, you might run into a vehicle, whose driver expected you to continue across the street, or you and your dog can become disoriented.
Hybrid cars are commonplace. At very slow speeds, the car relies on its electric motor, which is very quiet. When the car is idle, gasoline motors may shut off completely, using the electric motor and battery when ready to move again.
Many guide dog users are understandably uneasy about this new technology. As a guide dog handler, you consider traffic noise when deciding how to direct your dog. When working around traffic, most noise challenges are related to the ambient (i.e. surrounding) sounds in your travel environment. Generalized noise can make it difficult to target specific sounds no matter what their source. It is true that hybrid vehicles (and the less common electric car) are quieter than the standard vehicles you encounter and may be harder to hear. This is a situation where good communication with your dog is crucial. If your dog sends signals that he is hesitant to enter a street, take a moment to further assess the scene before repeating a command to move forward. Wearing clothing that makes you more visible as a pedestrian takes on greater importance as well.
The approach to working around cars remains consistent with established strategies; do your best to determine when it is safe to proceed, allow your dog to react appropriately to your command, and make yourself as visible as possible.
GDB has hybrid vehicles in its fleet and we’ve incorporated them into our dog and student training program. You will have an opportunity to familiarize yourself to this vehicle in class.
Tips for All Intersections
- Rely on your traffic reading skills. Do not cross just because you hear pedestrians proceed. Other pedestrians may be jaywalking or crossing at an unsafe time.
- Do not cross if you hear emergency sirens in the area or if you are unable to hear your traffic due to “masking” from airplanes, idling or loud trucks or buses, or leaf-blowers.
- Attempt to cross only when you are certain of when the initial surge of traffic began.
- If you are unsure or confused at an unfamiliar crossing, it is wise to ask for assistance.
In closing, street crossings with a guide dog are safest when you take your time and follow these guidelines. Your best strategy is being attentive to the environment and making deliberate decisions.
You can stream the audio of the class lecture here, via a Soundcloud widget. If using a screen reader, please select the "Play" option below.