Birdbrain drivers fall prey to HAWK stoplight

How many rear-end collisions have been caused by the new red light at River City Hall on Camino del Rio? Every time I go by, traffic is backed up for blocks. Of course, this is in keeping with CDOT’s inability to time the lights in town. Accident reports should include “poor governmental traffic management” as a contributing cause. – Lars Jobson

When it comes to road woes, the Colorado Department of Transportation is the usual scapegoat. But the blame is on the wrong creature.

We’re squawking about the HAWK, the High Intensity Activated Crosswalk.

The HAWK is the latest gizmo for pedestrian safety. Before its installation, anyone who wanted to cross busy Camino del Rio had to play a potentially fatal game of “Frogger.”

But now, pedestrians can stop traffic on demand. Couple that with the fact that the signal is used only sporadically, and you have a situation not conducive to predictable light timing.

That said, we have to remember that the HAWK crosswalk is not about vehicle convenience – it’s about stopping traffic to provide walkers with a safe way to cross the road.

The real reason for fender-benders is “driver error” and not “poor government traffic management.” People just don’t get the HAWK quite yet.

The HAWK light is normally “dark,” but when a pedestrian presses the crossing button, a series of lights are activated – flashing yellow, then solid yellow, then solid red, then flashing red.

This is where confusion begins.

How many simpletons slam on their brakes when they see the yellow light come on? How many nincompoops sit immobile when the red light is flashing?

Thus, a 27-second crossing becomes a minute-and-a-half traffic stoppage.

Our friend, Amber Blake, Durango’s multimodal transportation director, breaks it down.

“What do you do when you see a flashing yellow light?” she said.

“Slow down,” Action Line deftly replied.

“And what about a solid yellow light?” Amber asked.

“Prepare to stop.”

“Very good. Now what do you do at a red light?”

“Well, duh,” Action Line uttered. “You stop.”

“It appears that Mr. Action Line has a firm grasp of basic traffic rules,” Amber laughed. “Now for extra credit: What do you do with a flashing red?”

“That’s easy. You stop, look and proceed if the coast is clear.”

“Awesome. You scored 100 percent.”

But there’s the problem, Amber points out.

Most people know exactly what to do in each individual light situation. But when you put them together in a sequence, drivers panic and freeze, even when the light is barely yellow.

The solution is education, and soon you will be seeing a new sign, to be installed by CDOT, explaining what to do at the HAWK.

Which is a good thing, in a sad and irritating sort of way.

(Loyal readers know how Action Line feels about government having to put up a new sign to explain the sign they previously erected.)

In any case, HAWKs are not going away. About 20 states now have HAWK systems in place. They also appear to work.

In Tucson, Ariz., for example, a traffic study showed HAWK intersections had 69 percent fewer accidents involving pedestrians and 29 percent fewer accidents overall.

There might be issues right now at Camino del Rio and 12th Street, but isn’t it wonderful to live in a growing, walkable town with an active population?

Having spent last weekend in the Los Angeles basin, Action Line comes home with a new appreciation for drivers who gladly stop for pedestrians.

And the fact that there actually are pedestrians.

Southern California has more than 18 million people. All of them driving.

And not a HAWK in sight to stop anyone.

It can really ruffle one’s feathers.

Email questions to actionline@durangoherald.com or mail them to Action Line, The Durango Herald, 1275 Main Ave., Durango, CO 81301. You can request anonymity if you fly down the road in an AMC Eagle, Pontiac Firebird or a Toyota Tercel. (“Tercel” is a male falcon, not to be confused with the Ford Falcon).