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By Sara Callender, Staff Writer
March 11, 2008
A blind person can't cross a roundabout if cars won't stop. That bit of common sense forged Richard Bernstein's mission to improve safety at roundabouts in West Bloomfield. Through months of negotiations, Bernstein wouldn't take no for an answer and his tenacity paid off.
In a national precedent-setting agreement between the Road Commission for Oakland County and Bernstein, experimental safety equipment will be installed at the roundabout at Drake and Maple roads.
"I'm so excited. It's really wonderful," said Bernstein, a Farmington Hills-based attorney and advocate for disabled citizens. "There will still be continued traffic flow, but it will be much safer. So it's a great thing.
It was an absolute pleasure working with the road commission."
Bernstein, who is blind, filed a lawsuit against the RCOC last August because, he said, the roundabouts lack a safe mechanism for blind and disabled pedestrians to cross local streets. He filed the lawsuit on behalf of blind citizens Garret Gershin and Jason Turkish, as well as Mike Harris, who uses a wheelchair.
"We're thrilled at how this was able to be resolved," said Turkish, of Huntington Woods. "Lawsuits often have a negative image. But this shows that the legal system can be used to accomplish the goals of protecting everyone."
The Federal Highway Administration and the Michigan Department of Transportation must still approve the agreement, but the RCOC and Bernstein don't expect any problems. The agreement would delay the lawsuit for one year while the system is tested.
"The RCOC proposed (after the lawsuit) installing the signals as part of its constant efforts to enhance safety for all users of its road system," RCOC spokesman Craig Bryson said. "The agency has long been committed to improving safety. Oakland County today has one of the safest road systems in the world."
The agreement will allow the RCOC to install and test automated pedestrian crosswalks with push button systems, called the Hawk. The signal will be placed at each entry point to the roundabout.
When a pedestrian pushes the button, the light turns red to stop traffic. In addition, it emits a chirping sound to let blind people know when it's safe to cross. It will have the added benefit of helping everyone else cross the street, too.
"This is a revolutionary device," Bernstein said. "It's the first time it's been used in the country. It's not a regular traffic signal. It's designed specifically for roundabouts to keep traffic moving when there are no pedestrians. We're confident this is going to work."
The Hawk will be installed first at the Maple and Drake roundabout because of the foot traffic near the Jewish Community Center and the Jewish Academy.
It will likely be installed sometime this summer.
If results are successful, the system could eventually be installed at the Maple and Farmington roundabout. According to the RCOC, the cost and funding source for the signals haven't yet been determined.
The RCOC is installing several roundabouts to improve traffic flow as part of the Northwestern Connector project. Construction of a third roundabout is set to begin later this year at 14 Mile and Farmington roads.
The RCOC maintains that the roundabouts were designed according to requirements of the FHA. However, Bernstein expects that all roundabout in the U.S. will eventually be designed with more safety mechanisms for pedestrians and disabled citizens.
"This is the perfect example of what's good for the disabled is good for everyone," Bernstein said. "This benefits, seniors, kids, the disabled. This is a benchmark case for making sure roundabouts are good for everyone."
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