On my way to work yesterday I saw a man almost killed by a puffin.
That's a puffin crossing, the new-style pedestrian crossing that's been slowly replacing pelicans since 2006. My local pelican disappeared as part of road improvements in the run-up to the Olympics, and now we have a puffin instead. A Pedestrian user-friendly intelligent crossing is better, so we're told, but the old pelican probably wouldn't have caused yesterday's near-miss accident.
Puffin crossings have two major differences, deemed improvements. First they monitor pedestrian movements, keeping the traffic lights at red if anyone's still crossing and green if they've already crossed. That's good, clever, techno-impressive stuff. And secondly they switch the pedestrian signal from high on the lights opposite to low on a pole alongside. That's not so good, in my experience, and it's what encouraged a fellow commuter to walk into the road without thinking.
The set-up at this particular crossing is simple. There are two lanes of main road, and only one-way traffic. It's normally busy enough in the morning that you won't get across unless you press the button, and pressing the button eventually stops the traffic. But to spot that the lights have changed you have to look to your left for the green man to appear, or look up and deduce that the traffic-facing green light has switched off. Perfectly normal, utterly deliberate, the modern default.
Six of us were waiting yesterday, five on my side of the road and one on the other, while a steady stream of vehicles rolling by. It was cold, we were tired, and attention spans probably weren't at their optimum. Then a white van stopped in the lane closest to us. The driver didn't need to, there was roadspace ahead he could easily have moved into, but instead he thought he'd be kind and and let us across. Most of us waited because we couldn't see beyond the van, but one particular gentleman took his cue and started walking forward.
Had this still been a pelican crossing he'd have seen the red man shining directly ahead of him and probably thought twice. But instead the only clue at eye level was on a pole ninety degrees to his left, and he hadn't been looking there. You don't normally, not instinctively, not when you've been conditioned by several decades of staring forwards.
And so he walked out in front of the van, and was about to stride out across lane two when the sole lady waiting on the opposite pavement cried out. She'd seen what none of us on our side could, a red car speeding up the blind side behind the halted van on an imminent collision course. Its driver knew the traffic lights were still at green, so had made no attempt whatsoever to slow down, and continued forward oblivious. Ulp.
Our potential victim was jolted back into consciousness by the lady's cry. He slowed a little, just in time, and hence just missed being knocked flying. Shaken he retreated to the pavement, then the white van drove on, and all six of us waited for the traffic to stop properly. It could have been much nastier, whereas instead it fell somewhere between shocking and embarrassing. And all because the red man was hidden in plain sight where nobody thought to look.
According to the Puffin Crossings Good Practice Guide (a 58-page pdf from the Department for Transport), puffins have many benefits. Simplified displays reduce potential confusion for pedestrians (no more flashing green man) and drivers (no more flashing amber). Pedestrian demands can be cancelled when pedestrians cross prematurely, and the clearance time is always extended to allow slow pedestrians more time to cross. All should be good and lovely. But then there are those relocated lightboxes.
Puffinisation has been carried out with good intentions, but it's not always an improvement. If pedestrians looked at these new nearside signals that'd be great, but often they don't, or won't, or even can't. Nearside signals are always concealed if you walk up to them from the wrong side, whereas signals on the far side of the road are visible across a much wider angle of approach. Nearside signals can also be completely obscured because someone else is standing next to them. But most importantly nearside signals aren't positioned where they ought to be, where generations of Britons instinctively look, and so their safety message is summarily ignored.
Well-meaning civil servants armed with safety research and risk registers have deemed that a puffin crossing is safer if used properly, so puffin crossings are what we now get. But we don't use them as the bureaucrats planned, despite their best intentions, so most of these supposed safety benefits are negated. Instead we end up using our wits to spot a gap in the traffic, almost as if no crossing mechanism had been installed, dashing out when it looks safe even if it isn't.
I'm not saying that yesterday morning's near miss accident could never have happened at a pelican crossing. Walking into the traffic when one of the lanes is concealed is a bloody stupid thing to do, lights or no lights. But surely it must be possible to devise a pedestrian crossing with farside signals that people will actually look at, to encourage them to better take control of their own safety, rather than stick with lateral lights that people ignore. I'd prefer to see puffins extinct than to watch another duped pedestrian put their life at risk unnecessarily.