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Lawsuit leads to safer crossings for disabled pedestrians
Oakland County Legal News
By Christine L. Mobley
June 2, 2009
The purpose of roundabouts is to improve traffic flow and safety, but what about the safety of pedestrians, especially disabled pedestrians?
That's the question attorney Richard Bernstein asked in a lawsuit he brought against the Road Commission of Oakland County (RCOC) when it initiated its plans to create more roundabouts in Oakland County.
The Northwestern Connector Project, intended to reduce local traffic congestion and improve motorist and pedestrian safety, was the catalyst for the lawsuit.
Bernstein filed the lawsuit on behalf of three blind men, Garret Gersen, Jason Turkish, and Michael Harris, stating that the roundabouts were unsafe for pedestrians, especially disabled pedestrians.
"You can't have a situation where all of a sudden you have a circumstance where disabled people are unable to navigate a street or cross a street in a safe manner," said Bernstein, who is also blind.
"It's physically impossible for a blind person to cross a roundabout in a safe and effective manner."
Guide dogs for the visually impaired are trained not to cross while traffic is in motion, Bernstein explained. Therefore, the guide dogs would not proceed because vehicles are constantly in motion while traveling a roundabout.
The RCOC and the plaintiffs recently reached a settlement resulting from the federal lawsuit filed Aug. 14, 2007.
Bernstein said the RCOC was great to work with in terms of the case and in reaching a settlement.
"From start to finish, the Oakland County Road Commission was fantastic to work with," Bernstein said. "It was a wonderful team effort.
"You had both sides working together from the start...Everybody was working together to find a positive, constructive solution."
As part of the settlement, a High-intensity Activated CrossWalK - or HAWK - will be installed and tested in a roundabout at Drake and Maple Roads this coming July.
The HAWK has proven effective in other states for use at traditional intersections; however, this will be the first time it will be used for a roundabout.
The HAWK theoretically wouldn't disrupt the constant flow of traffic associated with the roundabout unless a pedestrian activated it.
When a pedestrian wishes to cross the street, they push a button and the signal begins with a flashing yellow light that warns drivers approaching the crosswalk to slow down. The HAWK will emit a chirping sound to let the visually impaired know where it is located.
Additionally, the settlement calls for the installation of a Rectangular Rapid Flash Beacon (RRFB) at the roundabout located at Farmington and Maple Roads in May 2010.
Western Michigan University will conduct studies and report on both these devices and their effectiveness.
According to Craig Bryson, RCOC public information officer, there are 10 roundabouts in operation in Oakland County and there are several others in various stages of design or in consideration. Two more roundabouts will become operational this summer.
"(The RCOC) proposed the HAWK system as a potential way of enhancing safety for pedestrians and in particularly those with handicaps and we're going to test it and see if it works," Bryson said.
"Our commitment has been that if it does work we will consider expanding it to other locations but that will depend on how well it functions and what our analysis is of the test."
The lawsuit, however, has not deterred any construction of roundabouts in Oakland County, Bryson noted.
"We are absolutely convinced of both the safety and traffic benefits of roundabouts," Bryson said. "Often they are a less expensive option, often they take up less right-of-ways, they move traffic considerably better and that's been evidenced repeatedly by the 10 we have functioning right now.
"Safety is our primary motivating factor," Bryson added. He also stated that the RCOC would have worked with Bernstein without the lawsuit being brought.
Even if the results of the HAWK and RRFB testing are unfavorable, Bryson doesn't expect the RCOC to remove the roundabouts.
"By all measures that we can find, (the roundabouts) are working wonderfully and meet all federal guidelines, all ADA guidelines and is something that is encouraged by the Federal Highway Administration and meets all of their standards," Bryson said.
"Clearly, the roundabout is the safest alternative that we've found within reasonable cost for motorists and the question remains, 'Can we ensure that it is the same for pedestrians?' We think that we can and that's what we're all working towards," Bryson added. "We share that goal very strongly with Mr. Bernstein."
Only time will tell if the HAWK and RRFB will be effective enough to finally close this case, but until that time, the parties involved feel good about what is being implemented.
"We're absolutely thrilled with how this was resolved," Turkish, a graduate student at the University of Michigan, said. "We didn't just settle a lawsuit, we set a national precedent for how roundabouts are going to be designed and implemented throughout the country.
"Oakland County is going to be the example that everyone else is going to follow on how to construct roads that are safe for everyone," Turkish added.
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