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Pedestrian crossings! [Thursday 10th April 2014 at 6:30 pm]

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[Playing |Forbidden Knowledge ~ Warder [forbidden knowledge.it]]

This week's lesson was today (well... yesterday by the time this actually gets posted) rather than the usual Tuesday as my instructor was up in London that day (at some book/author event, I think). Which was probably just as well, as I was definitely feeling a bit off back then and had somewhat lost my voice to whatever lurgy is currently doing the rounds. Anyway, I was feeling much better today!

Again I was in the driving seat for the entire lesson - gone are the days of the instructor driving me around! We started off by driving all the way from work along the A27, down past Fareham College and HMS Collingwood, before parking up somewhere in the depths of Gosport. And this time I managed it without stalling or attempting to ram any signposts (well... that bit when I almost stalled coming out of a junction doesn't count as I merely almost stalled).

Then it was time for today's lesson topic: pedestrian crossings. Here in the UK pedestrians can actually cross wherever they want (I didn't even know the word "jaywalking" until the Internet came along), but because it can be hard to cross busy roads there's a few different types of fixed crossing. Now if you recall last week I was set some homework to come up with five different types of pedestrian crossing (there's others, but I'll get to them later), and they are:

School ("lollipop")

We started with zebra crossings first, which are the black-and-white stripes across a road with flashing orange beacons (well known in the UK for "somehow" migrating to many a student bedroom... along with light-up bollards and traffic cones). These are uncontrolled crossings, in that nothing tells pedestrians (or drivers!) when to cross. Instead pedestrians can step out whenever they want, and drivers must stop to let them cross. In practice sensible pedestrians will wait until a driver has spotted them and slowed down, and sensible drivers will slow down and stop if someone's waiting. You also have to watch out for people taking the crossing diagonally, sometimes from before they've reached the crossing! Or even doing daft things like doubling-back on it.

The approach to zebra crossings, and indeed most permanent crossings, is marked on the road with zig-zag lane lines. Within this area (and the crossing itself) you must not park your car or overtake other cars. Also crossings might be split into multiple segments or might have a single crossing spanning the entire road. If a crossing has an actual island in the middle then it is treated as two (or more) independent crossings, though sensible drivers will still pay attention to both parts as the pedestrians don't know that it's two crossings.

We then detoured into hand signals (there is a reason why). There's three hand signals a driver can use: arm out the window with palm vertical to indicate that you're turning right, the same but with your arm moving in an anti-clockwise direction to indicate that you're turning left, and arm moving up and down with your hand horizontal to show that you're stopping. Really, you'll only ever need those if your indicators or brake lights have failed in which case a traffic cop will probably bend your ear over driving with a broken car. Now, the reason why these are brought up here is for when you're approaching a zebra crossing, there is a great big lorry parked where he shouldn't be on the other side of the crossing, and you're stopping to let someone cross. Oncoming traffic can't see if someone's crossing because of the lorry, and they can't see your brake lights... and if you indicate or flash your lights they'll only get the wrong idea. So you're supposed to use the hand signal for stopping if that happens.

In practice, approximately no-one ever does that. Certainly I've never seen anyone use hand signals at a zebra crossing. And besides, to give the signal you have to realise that you need to do so, wind down your window, check that there's no twits on mopeds that you're about to punch in the face, stick your arm out and wave it around... while stopping for the crossing, which'll mean changing gear with your other hand... and steering with what, exactly (my instructor suggested "probably your knees")? Presumably it only appears in the course because it might be brought up in the theory test (which does have the odd really stupid question/answer pair).

Enough of hand signals and on to the next crossing! Firstly, the Pelican crossing which is the original pedestrian-controlled automatic crossing that everyone here knows. It consists of a pole at each side of the road containing traffic lights (for cars), a WAIT button, and red/green man lights facing across the crossing (for people on the other side to see). How it works is when someone presses the button a timer starts, and when the timer runs out (or it detects a pause in the traffic - not all do this though) it'll show amber and then red to the traffic. The green man then appears and people can cross. After a bit the green man will start flashing, and on the traffic light so will the amber light, before the red man and the green light appear later. While it is in the flashing phase pedestrians should not start to cross and drivers can go but only if the crossing is clear. This is run entirely on timers - it doesn't know if pedestrians are still crossing or not, or even if someone is still waiting to cross. It's perfectly legal here to cross without waiting for the green man to appear, and indeed people often do if it's clear.

Because it's an old design that doesn't take into account where people are they're being replaced here with Puffin crossings (the "puffin" stands for "pedestrian user-friendly intelligent", believe it or not). The differences with a Puffin crossing are that the red/green men are on the same side of the road as the pedestrian (in a little display on the pole), there is no flashing amber phase, and it has motion sensors on top of the poles so it knows where the pedestrians are. Because of this it won't change the traffic lights from red to green until the crossing is empty, and additionally if Joe Bloggs wanders off or crosses early it'll cancel the request to cross and never change from green. The presence of something on top of the pole doesn't always mean it's a Puffin rather than a Pelican crossing though - because as well as being a crossing they're also power points and so are handy places to stick CCTV cameras.

A Toucan crossing is a variant on a Puffin crossing that additionally allows bicycles to be ridden across. Otherwise it behaves exactly the same. And while I'm at it, a Pegasus crossing is a Puffin crossing with an extra high button for horse riders to use.

There was another detour in the discussion here, on the topic of the pavement at crossings. While most Brits will be aware that fixed crossings have tactile paving slabs, what I didn't know is that an awful lot of thought has gone into them. Controlled crossings use pink (yes, that's the official colour - they look more red to me) tactile slabs, while uncontrolled crossings use buff (a sort of subdued yellow). The colours aren't chosen at random, but are picked with blind people in mind - or rather, guide dogs for blind people. While dogs are colour-blind they can see the difference in shade between the two colours used and so know what sort of crossing it is. Guide dogs are also taught to watch the traffic at uncontrolled crossings and lead their person across only when it's safe to do so. Finally, the paving slabs are also anti-slip which is good as they usually slope down to the road.

There's one crossing left: school crossings, commonly known as lollipop crossings here. These have someone standing at the side of the road with a lollipop-shaped sign (hence the name). Sign pointing down means that there's no-one waiting to cross and we can go. When someone appears and wants to cross the lollipop lady (or gentlemen as it may be) will hold the sign as a barrier to stop them walking into the road. This is also a cue to drivers that they should be nice and stop. If the lollipop lady gets fed up waiting then she'll hold the sign upright leaning out into the road to signal to the next driver to stop now. Finally, when they've stopped the traffic they'll stand in the middle of the road with their arms outstretched and the sign upright, looking rather like a blocker from Lemmings.

There was a third diversion here, into hand signals from traffic cops (who my instructor described as being especially mean to anyone that gets on the wrong side of them). The reason is the signals they use to stop traffic look much the same as a lollipop lady does. An arm outstretched in front with the palm facing out tells oncoming traffic to stop, while a hand held out to the side with the palm vertical tells traffic from behind to stop. Yes, this does look rather like the hand signal for "I'm turning right" (my instructor commented that everyone gets this signal wrong when she first shows it to them). The key here is that if a traffic cop wants you to go somewhere, they'll move their arm to beckon you on and/or point where they want you to go.

Finally, there's some other sorts of crossing for non-pedestrian traffic. I've already mentioned the Pegasus crossing, but there's also wig-wag crossings. These are mainly used for level crossings over train tracks and occasionally outside ambulance and fire stations, and have a very different light to anything else. If the crossing is clear then no light shows. When the crossing is about to close first an amber light shows, and then a pair of red lights flash alternately (hence the name "wig-wag"). If you see amber you really ought to be stopping, and if you see red you STOP (even if you've just seen a train pass, as if the lights are still going then there will be another train). Level crossings usually have barriers across the entire road that are automatically lowered, but some have shorter barriers that only block your side. Ironically half-barrier crossings were supposed to be safer because, as the theory went, anyone stuck on the crossing could escape... but it's all too easy to zig-zag around the barriers. Needless to say jumping a wig-wag crossing is a bad, bad idea (as Top Gear demonstrated).

If that all looks like an enormous wall of text, that's because there's a lot of information to take in in these driving lessons! I think we spent the best part of an hour just going over all the different crossings and how to handle them. Anyway, after that it was time for a tour of Gosport naming the different crossing types are they appeared ("Puffin... Pelican... Pelican... Toucan... trick question, that's just some traffic lights") before heading back up to Fareham along Newgate Lane. Oh, and dealing with plenty of roundabouts and a few crossings in the process, and getting slightly flustered trying to manage mirror/signal/manoeuvre/gear all at the same time. Back outside my flat my instructor gave me a tip on how to handle this - the time to signal for your exit is not so much as you pass the exit before, but a little later when you're pointing straight at your exit. Doing so then is a little easier as there's less stuff happening at the moment.

Next week: how to cope with oncoming traffic!
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