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The Braille Monitor – January, 2001 Edition


NFB Files Minority Report to the PROWAAC

by Scott C. LaBarre                                                  

Scott LaBarre

Scott LaBarre

From the Editor: Scott Labarre is an attorney practicing in Denver. He and Peggy Elliott have been representing the NFB on the Public Rights of Way Access Advisory Committee of the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board. He recently wrote a minority report expressing the Federation's position on such things as accessible pedestrian signals and detectable warnings. Here is that report with Scott's commentary:


In the November, 2000, issue we reported on recent activities of the Public Rights of Way Access Advisory Committee (PROWAAC) of the Architectural and Transportation Barriers Compliance Board (ATBCB). As indicated in that article, the PROWAAC held a meeting in mid-October to consider the content of its final report to the ATBCB. The report addressed two items of major concern for the blind. As predicted in the November article, a majority of PROWAAC members voted in favor of broad and sweeping proposals regarding accessible pedestrian signals (APS's) and detectable warnings, strips of textured material placed on pavement and discernible underfoot or using a cane.

As a result of the meeting, the Editorial Committee of the PROWAAC undertook the task of drafting the final report to be presented to the ATBCB. At the time of this writing (mid-December), the final report is not yet finished. However, the first draft of that report is ninety-three pages long and contains language objectionable to the Federation. Although the final report may be slightly different, the proposals of most concern to the blind will not change because the votes taken by the PROWAAC in October are final and not subject to a recount.

Minority reports were due on December 4, 2000, and the National Federation of the Blind filed such a report. Below we have printed the NFB's minority report. Please note that the language addressing proposed standards is not ours. Instead of rewriting the proposed standards incorporating our preferences and employing a less unwieldy style, we thought it best to keep the Committee's text and make our changes in it. Additionally, I will interrupt the Minority Report to provide commentary at points at which the original language and concepts may not be clear to those who have not participated in the PROWAAC process over the last year.


Minority Report
National Federation of the Blind

Submitted by
Peggy Pinder Elliott and Scott C. LaBarre



This minority report is based on the majority report published by the Public Rights of Way Access Advisory Committee. This report identifies sections of the majority report that the National Federation of the Blind finds objectionable. Our text identifies the particular section by its designation in the majority report and then provides alternative language. Following the alternate language is a section discussing why the Federation finds the majority's draft objectionable.

In general the National Federation of the Blind believes that blind and visually impaired people can and do function successfully in the built environment. Therefore it is not necessary to rebuild or restructure the existing environment dramatically. The Federation acknowledges, however, that there are circumstances in the built environment which do not permit blind and visually impaired individuals to use non-visual techniques efficiently. In such circumstances it is prudent to provide additional non-visual cues.


Alternative Proposals

X02.5.2.1 General. Accessible Pedestrian Signals may be provided when the following conditions are present:

(A) Pedestrian timing is affected by push button activation,

(B) Timing includes a lead pedestrian interval, or

(C) Where there is a fixed time signal with pedestrian signal indication information presented. In this instance a push button may be provided that delivers the same information in an accessible format.


Discussion: The majority report states that APS's [email protected] be required in the above-identified circumstances. This standard is far too broad and approaches the underlying issue in the wrong manner. The majority's standard relies upon the type of signal being used as opposed to the type of intersection.

The primary technique that people who are blind or visually impaired use to cross streets at signalized locations is to initiate their crossing when they hear the traffic alongside them begin to move, corresponding to the onset of the green light. This technique is effective in the vast majority of situations, since the built environment provides sufficient non-visual cues to permit proficient use of the technique. The effectiveness of this technique can be reduced by several factors including increasingly quiet cars, right turn on red (which masks the beginning of the through phase), complex signal operations, and wide streets. Further, low traffic volumes may make it difficult for pedestrians who are blind or visually impaired to discern signal changes.

The increasing use of actuated signals, at which the pedestrian must push a button and cross during the pedestrian phase, requires blind pedestrians to locate the pedestrian pushbutton and to cross only at the proper time during that phase. These changes in signalization affect the complexity of intersections and may make it necessary to provide the pedestrian signal information in an accessible format.

In responding to a request for an accessible pedestrian signal at an existing intersection, traffic engineers and other officials should first examine the overall safety of the intersection for all pedestrians. For example, a lead-left rather than a lag-left turn may make it much more difficult for a blind or visually impaired pedestrian to use non-visual techniques at an intersection. Improving the safety for all pedestrians will often provide the blind or visually impaired pedestrian with safe and efficient access.

Additionally, engineers may find it useful to work closely with the blind pedestrian(s) who will be using the intersection, local organizations of the blind, local organizations providing rehabilitation or other services to the blind, and orientation and mobility specialists.

The alternative language permits a much more flexible standard and is far more manageable. The majority's standard requires APS's at a large number of intersections where blind and visually impaired pedestrians already operate successfully and where there is no need for additional non-visual cues. The decision to install an APS is by its very nature an intersection-by-intersection decision. It is also of great importance for traffic engineers to consult the local blind community and seek its input about whether a given intersection or intersections require an APS. The alternative language provides local communities with the greatest degree of flexibility.


Commentary: As the Minority Report suggests, the PROWAAC majority position is far too broad. If adopted into final regulation, the federal government will require APS's at virtually every intersection where a traffic signal controls when a pedestrian can cross. Imagine every intersection with two signals at each of its corners, and then remember that it will cost approximately $4,000 per intersection to equip it with the standard eight APS's required when two streets cross.

Different communities and different intersections in those communities call for varying solutions. The language the Federation suggests would provide the greatest flexibility. The standard which the PROWAAC proposes would mandate APS's virtually everywhere.

X02.5.2.2 Required Features. Where accessible pedestrian signals are provided, they shall comply with the following requirements.

Note: This section of the minority report proposes changes to Paragraphs b and c only and does not alter any other part of Section X02.5.2.2.

Commentary: Eight subsections appear in the "Required-Features" portion of the Majority's report, most of which are not objectionable to the Federation. For example, one standard calls for APS's to indicate clearly which crosswalk can be crossed safely. In other words, there should be no ambiguity which part of the intersection has been given the walk signal and which crosswalk is okay to cross. The alternative language we propose addresses only the two subsections that we find problematic.

(b) When indicating the walk interval, the accessible pedestrian signal shall deliver the indication in vibrotactile format.                                                               

Discussion: The majority report calls for APS's to deliver information in both audible and vibrotactile formats. As referenced earlier, the most important non-visual cue is the sound of the traffic as it flows through the intersection. Consequently, APS's which emit tones designed to be louder than the ambient background noise have the undesired effect of masking the sound of traffic. If the APS unit is located adjacent to the curb ramp, it is easy for a blind person to feel the vibrotactile information transmitted. This solution does not emit unnecessary noise into the environment and also gives the blind or visually impaired pedestrian the information about when the signal has changed.                                                                  

Commentary: At our most recent convention in Atlanta, we passed Resolution 00-08 which calls for local governments to install APS's that deliver information in vibrotactile format only. Our Minority Report suggests language consistent with that resolution.

Vibrotactile APS's alert the blind or visually impaired pedestrian when the signal changes in his or her favor but do not create any additional noise in the intersection. Typically the device has a raised arrow that points in the direction to be crossed, and that arrow vibrates when the signal changes. As indicated in the Minority Report, listening to the flow of traffic is the most important non-visual technique blind and visually impaired people use while crossing intersections. It is absolutely crucial that society not create more noise in intersections which can mask and drown out the sound of traffic.

(C) Where there is an accessible pedestrian signal controlled by a pedestrian push button, there shall be a locator tone complying with X02.5.1.5, only when the push button associated with the APS is not within ten feet of the top of the curb ramp for which the APS provides information.

Discussion: The majority report requires a locator tone wherever an APS is present. If the blind or visually impaired pedestrian can expect to find the push button in a standard location close to the curb ramp, there is no need for a locator tone. Locator tones are by definition designed to operate at a level louder than the surrounding environment. Because the majority has chosen a frequency of 880 hertz, such locator tones will affect a blind or visually impaired person's ability to listen to important cues such as the sound of traffic flowing through the intersection. Most blind or visually impaired travelers would agree that the ability to hear traffic clearly is the most important non-visual technique used while crossing intersections. Interfering with the sound of traffic poses a great safety risk and outweighs the benefit of making it easier to find the push button.

Commentary: This section of the Minority Report mostly speaks for itself. At a standard signalized two-street intersection with four corners, the Majority Report would require eight APS's, each having a locator tone. Just imagine how much extra noise would be transmitted into the surrounding environment. It should also be noted that in another section of the majority report a standard location for APS poles is mandated. If blind pedestrians can find APS's in a standard location, what need is there for a locator tone?

X02.5.6.2 Detectable Warnings. Curb ramps at medians and refuge islands, and where medians and refuge islands are cut through level with the street at crosswalks, shall have detectable warnings complying with 705 and X02.5.7.

Discussion: When detectable warnings for medians or islands are considered, detectable warnings should be placed only pursuant to the standard set forth in the following section.

X02.5.7 Detectable warnings.

X02.5.7.1 General. Where required, detectable warnings shall comply with X02.5.7.

X02.5.7.2 Application. Detectable warnings shall be provided only at the bottom two feet of curb ramps having a slope of 1:15 [one inch rise for every fifteen inches of horizontal distance]or less.

Discussion: Curb ramps which slope at 1:15 or less are virtually flat. Therefore it can be difficult for a blind or visually impaired pedestrian to locate the end of the curb ramp and the beginning of the street. Detectable warnings in these flat locations will provide the blind or visually impaired pedestrian with a definitive cue about where the sidewalk ends and the intersection begins. Ramps with a slope greater than 1:15 are readily detectable with non-visual techniques used by blind and visually impaired pedestrians.

Commentary: As in the majority APS standard, the Federation believes that the proposed majority standard concerning detectable warnings is far too broad. Truncated domes would be installed at all intersections, alley ways, and reflecting pools. We believe that these truncated domes are not necessary unless the intersection is flat. Otherwise blind pedestrians can feel with their canes or their feet that the curb ramp slopes down towards the street. Why spend a great deal of public money on a system of detectable warnings when the built environment already provides non-visual cues?

So there you have it: the Federation's Minority Report. As indicated in the November article, the PROWAAC report is the first step in a long regulatory process. We believe that the PROWAAC majority has proposed standards which are too broad and ultimately harmful to the blind. Soon we will all have an opportunity to provide comment to the ATBCB. We must take full advantage of this opportunity. I expect that a public comment period will begin sometime in the spring. We will, of course, alert everyone when it is announced.

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