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Beepers, Birdcalls, Bells and Buzzers: The Changes in Audible Signals in Canada

Editor's Note: Editor's Note: Richard Marion has been representing the NFB:AE on the Advisory Committee, CNIB/Transport Development Centre, Accessible Pedestrian Signals Project

It is a busy day on the city streets. You are walking home from a hectic day. When you approach the intersection by your home you wait patiently for the light to change. Today, something is different. All of the sudden, you hear what sounds like a bird chirping. You stand there for a second and then realize that a new audible signal has been installed at this normally complex intersection. You feel a sense of relief now that the intersection gives you more of the information sighted people use to cross the street

Before the chirping finishes, you start your crossing with the necessary information to know that you are actually making a legal crossing of this usually busy intersection. After you complete this crossing, you ask yourself, "Why do only a few intersections have this type of device?"

This is a question that many people who are blind or partially sighted ask themselves often. In Canada, there are only a small percentage of intersections equipped with audible signals. The numbers range from only one or two intersections in the average Canadian city to the over 200 in the City of Vancouver. Why haven't audible signals caught on in the same fashion as visual walk and don't walk indicators? The answer to this question is most likely more comprehensive than the space will permit in this article. However, the short simple answer is the fact that there has not really been enough attention paid to setting a universal standard for the implementation and use of audible signals in Canada or even in North America.

When looking at the implementation of audible signals, they have varied from bells and buzzers in Cities such as Ottawa, to beepers, sirens and the more frequently used birdcalls.

Birdcalls otherwise called Coo Coos and Chirps have recently been adopted by many cities in Canada as the standard they use when installing new signals. This has proven difficult in cities such as Ottawa where older signals still use the bells and buzzers. However, in other Cities such as Vancouver and Toronto, all intersections use the Coo Coos and Chirps to indicate the walk portion of the crossing.

When looking at the future of audible signals, it is clear that coo coos and chirps will not meet the access needs of the population. Other issues that have to be considered include the access needs of the deaf-blind. Australia and New Zealand are perhaps the only countries that have addressed this issue in a universal manner. Every controlled intersection provides visual, audible and vibral-tactile information that is available to everyone. Also, locations of the hardware are generally in the same place at every intersection.

In Canada, the introduction of vibral-tactile signals is a recent occurrence. The only locations where such accessible signals are located are in Toronto at a residence for people who are deaf-blind and also at a few locations in the Greater Vancouver Regional District.

Currently there is a lot of research being done on audible or accessible signals. Much of this research is related to pole locator tones and appropriate voice messaging. At this time, there are only a couple of cities that use any type of voice messaging. These include Prince George and Saskatoon. The research currently happening will hopefully help Canada and the United States develop a standard that will encompass the universal needs of all people with sensory disabilities needing accessible signals.

Part of the on-going debate in North America is where should the sound be generated? Currently a high majority of the installations have the sound being generated from about fifteen feet in the air. This can cause many problems including complaints about noise pollution because of sound dispersion. The newer accessible signals that have features for the deaf-blind use signal unit systems where the sound generators are at the pedestrian level. This type of system has proven very successful in Vancouver in both meeting the needs of blind, deaf-blind and partially sighted pedestrians and eliminating complaints about noise where these systems are in use

Currently, The Canadian National Institute for the Blind is co-ordinating the completion of a Canadian position on accessible signals for the International Standards Organization. Funding for the project was provided by the Transportation Development Centre of Transport Canada. The NFB:AE is involved in the project as one of the consumer representatives. It is hoped that this project will form the basis for a comprehensive standard, which will cover everything from where the sound gets generated from to how the signals are activated.

For more information about this project, please contact the NFB:AE's National Office, or visit the CNIB's website at:


I am looking for a buzzer that has a low sound can you recomend a wholesaleer? It has too be priced at around one dollar do you know a whole saler? Frank