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New Technologies Aimed At Blind Pedestrians

Editor's Note: The following article is reprinted with permission of the Daytona Beach News-Journal, May 30, 2004: http://www.news-journalonline.com

David Dixon used to drive trucks across the country, but now has trouble crossing local streets.

The Port Orange man has been blind for almost 11 years.

"It's kind of ironic, isn't it?" he said. "There are some very scary and dangerous intersections around that I would not cross even if I could see. It's even worse when you're blind."

That situation could improve nationally in a couple of years with the advent of new technologies that may be tested locally--including handheld receivers that can read crosswalk signals and verbally tell blind pedestrians if the way is clear.

Visually impaired people have relied on others, their canes and faith that drivers yield when they are supposed to. A few years ago, audible crossing signals were the rage and were installed at select Volusia County intersections, including two on White Street in Daytona Beach near two training centres for the blind, and on U.S. 92 and North Amelia Avenue in DeLand. The chirps and beeps emitted indicate when it's appropriate to cross.

Dixon says the audible signals are worse than useless.

"They don't tell you what direction you're facing and there's no way of telling when you are leaving the crosswalk," Dixon said. "There's other issues too, but the big one is that cars and trucks drown out the beeps."

Replacing the audible signals with a new set of "eyes" is the goal of a Michigan company wanting to test its new technology in Volusia County and its cities, including Daytona Beach.

"Florida has one of the worst records in the nation for pedestrian safety," said Mike MacLear of Relume Technologies. "What better place to start and test our system?"

The local transportation planning agency, the Volusia County Metropolitan Planning Organization, is trying to form a public/private partnership to test the new system locally so it eventually can be approved for use by state and federal transportation officials.

"We want to help the company improve its design, and market it so it's approved," said Karl Welzenbach, MPO executive director. "We have a number of blind residents because of the schools here and it would help us with having a system up and working at a reduced cost."

Relume created a microchip that makes LED lights--light-emitting diodes--pulse at varying rates too fast for the human eye to detect. It has also developed a hand-held transponder the size of a garage door opener to receive and interpret the pulses when pointed at the LEDs.

The chip can work with LED crossing signals, the type Volusia County and some cities are switching to, rather than continuing with less efficient and more costly light-bulb signals. The transponders are programmed to interpret the crosswalk's signals and say the words "wait" or "proceed with caution."

The transponders can also vibrate for added emphasis. The sounds and vibrations can be programmed to fade when the user veers out of the crosswalk and the transponder is not pointed at the crosswalk signal.

Initial tests are planned to begin this summer in select Miami and St. Petersburg sites. The chips cost about $4 each and the transponders are about $20 to $30. The audible signals cost about $7,500 to $25,000, Welzenbach said.

"For the next year, we want to see who we can get to participate and create a plan all can agree on," Welzenbach said. "There are many issues and a lack of (Americans with Disabilities Act) standards as to where the audible signal posts and buttons are located. This would eliminate all that."

And save lives, Dixon said.

bob.koslow@news-jrnl.com