This article is inspired by a conversation that occurred on the Facebook page for the Society for All British (and Irish) Road Enthusiasts about examples of pedestrian crossings using the wrong sign.
I set about asking myself ‘how could we improve things’?
The humble Zebra Crossing is a rather elderly innovation these days. However, it is still an extremely versatile means to provide a safe way to cross the street in urban areas. It is therefore imperative that the associated signs used with such a facility are appropriate and fit for purpose.
The current Dia. 544, for use on the approach to Zebra Crossings only, is often misused or inappropriately placed. This is often due to simple misunderstandings about its function. For instance, it is not necessary to place the sign prior to every single crossing. If visibility is good then a sign is pointless and a needless maintenance liability.
The above Dia. 544 with supplementary plate is appropriate, even though at first glance it may seem to be overkill. The road here is on a continuous uphill gradient and the rise on the humped crossing is therefore masked by the visual distortion of the road ahead the hill causes. However, the warning of a school crossing patrol in the distance would be better as its own sign – the warning of road narrows is not needed on a road where parked vehicles narrow the carriageway anyway.
My criticism of the sign is not just the overuse of it, but the fact that the pictograph does not even adequately represent the Zebra Crossing. Prior to the early 1950s, pedestrian crossings comprised entirely of two Belisha Beacons and a parallel pair of studs to demarcate the crossing point. This was felt to be insufficient, and the now familiar painted stripes were introduced.
In 1963, when the Worboys Report was issued, the sign for a Zebra Crossing still showed such a facility as a pair of parallel studs. It therefore has never truly been representative, although the argument in its favour was presumably clarity of the pictograph of the pedestrian.
However, there is an argument for clarity with the rest of the European Union (even if the UK is most likely leaving it in the next few years). At least 18 of the 27 member states presently use the stripes variant, which is distinctly a super-majority of 66%.
The second argument is immediate recognition; the studs variant is often (technically correctly) identified purely as a ‘pedestrian crossing’, not a ‘Zebra Crossing’. This distinction in the UK will be more apparent further below.
The French replaced their symbol A13b with the striped crossing variant in 1998. I am not ashamed to say that on a trip there in the late 1990s, when I first saw it, that this change actually pleased me.
The legal obligations of a motorist approaching a Zebra Crossing are currently that they need not stop unless the pedestrian has already stepped out onto the crossing. I don’t intend to open the debate on that issue (save for the fact I do have some sympathy for ‘priority should apply even to a pedestrian waiting on the tactile paving’ argument). By providing an obvious sign for this purpose the expectation that they may need to stop is emphasised. If a motorist thinks the sign is generic, they may not be expecting a sudden ‘claim of priority’ by an exasperated pedestrian!
There is also the third issue of the new “Parallel Crossing”, which is perhaps better known as the combined Zebra/cycle crossing. These are, presumably, still to be signed as a standard Zebra Crossing, which would once more further the need to ensure the sign is distinct and recognisable.
A complete dog’s breakfast of an installation is shown above; the supplementary plate is not needed and the temporary sign is in the wrong place too. In all, this suggests even designers think there’s a problem with understanding the plate.
I have looked at the European stripe designs, and the main criticism of the bulk of them is they draw too many stripes. I have therefore drafted a design which reduces the number of stripes to just three.
Proposed Dia. 544A which would allow the eventual withdrawal of the current Dia. 544. This sign would be appropriate for use at Parallel Crossings (a supplementary plate would be advised for such scenarios) as well as regular Zebra Crossings.
The second issue is the dreaded at-grade crossing on a high speed road. These, personally, are something I wish did not exist at all, but in a world where value engineering is king, providing footbridges or subways is not always viable. These crossings are only visible in many cases because of the warning signs on the approach. Modern design specification requires guard rail and such like to make it obvious there is a crossing point but there are still many older sites where the only protection afforded to a pedestrian is a gap in the central reservation barrier.
Presently, such sites are required to use Dia. 562 “other danger” with a supplementary “Pedestrians crossing” plate. This is in itself an issue as a crossing pedestrian should not really be relegated to the same category of other danger.
A temporary, and incorrect, installation of the uncontrolled pedestrian crossing point sign.
I personally would like to see a standard pictograph of a pedestrian crossing the road ahead. Doing so would emphasise the presence of such a crossing point and ensure that there is no confusion as to what situation exists ahead.
Proposed replacement for the existing Dia. 562/supplementary plate combination. The pictograph makes it clear the pedestrian is crossing despite the lack of a controlled facility.
I don’t know if there is an actual utility in promoting this concept as an actual idea to take through to research and further development; I rather suspect the DfT is wanting a break from traffic signs following the recent rush to ensure the TSRGD and Traffic Signs Manuals are all amended.
The advantages of proposing a change are thus:
- Replace a slightly ambiguous symbol with a clearer one.
- Promote standardisation with majority of neighbouring European nations.
- Provide advance warning of uncontrolled crossings using a bespoke sign rather than a generic ‘other danger’ plate.
- Improve road safety by ensuring motorists are not ‘surprised’ by a different circumstance through the use of an incorrect sign.
The disadvantages are:
- Cost. To mitigate this, it would make sense to have a phased replacement as is happening with imperial only regulatory signs and then withdraw the existing Dia. 544 and 562/plate combination after so many years.
- Potential for confusion. This could be mitigated by a simple education campaign, although this again incurs a cost.
- Need. Further detailed research may suggest that such a change would provide only superficial benefits, as was discovered during suggestions to introduce strike-through red bars on No Pedestrians and No Cycling signs. The increase in comprehension (which was already in the high 90% range) was negligible.
It’s a suggestion I would like to see at least considered, however!