Signals to change at Wichita school crosswalks

People walking or driving in Wichita near school crosswalks with traffic signals may soon notice a change:

Instead of school-zone lights flashing at predetermined times each morning and afternoon – signaling drivers to slow to 20 mph and watch for pedestrians – the lights will flash only when a pedestrian pushes the crosswalk button, at any time of day or night.

“Overall, it’s safer,” said Brian Coon, assistant traffic engineer for the city of Wichita, who helped develop the new synchronized light system that crews will install over the next several months.

“The purpose of school zones is to slow traffic and increase protection when pedestrians are present, and this … does that much more effectively.”

Here’s the reasoning: Under the old system, motorists speeding along a stretch of road at 40 or 45 mph would see a flashing school-zone sign, hit the brakes and look down at their speedometer, Coon said.

Their main concern? Avoiding a speeding ticket. Because most of the time, no pedestrian is even there.

“So you have a distracted driver and a complacent driver – one conditioned to believe there may or may not be a child present,” Coon said.

“It’s similar to ‘Children At Play’ signs, which are notoriously bad because people tend to ignore them and just drive how they’re going to drive.”

The new synchronized system, already installed at several crosswalks in west Wichita, is “pedestrian-driven,” Coon said.

When a pedestrian pushes the crosswalk button, it activates the school-zone flashers. For 10 seconds – when drivers are about 600 feet away – the lights flash while the crosswalk signal turns yellow and then red. Pedestrians can cross safely as the “walk” and then flashing “don’t walk” signs are illuminated. Then, the school-zone flashers continue for another 10 seconds after the traffic signal turns green.

“This ensures that every time a child wants to cross, the school-zone flashers are in effect,” Coon said. “And drivers pay more attention to the flashers because it’s not just some arbitrary time period.”

Laura Munsch, whose daughter attends McCollom Elementary School in west Wichita, noticed the change this week as she drove along 13th Street between Tyler and Maize roads.

The school-zone lights weren’t flashing and drivers weren’t slowing down the way they once did before 9 a.m. and after 4 p.m., as children walk to and from school, she said.

“It seems very strange and unsafe,” Munsch said. She said she called the school principal, who referred her to city officials. They told her the fixed-time flashing lights were being phased out all over Wichita.

“I was concerned because we had considered riding our bikes to school, but now I don’t know,” she said. Her daughter, Jaiden, is a first-grader.

“If they have the studies to show it’s safer, great,” Munsch added. “I guess I just wish they would have told us the reasoning behind it before they rolled it out.”

Coon, the traffic engineer, said the new system should have additional benefits as well: reduced emissions and less pollution because fewer vehicles will brake and accelerate, less wear-and-tear on roads because of less braking and accelerating in a concentrated area, and increased safety for pedestrians crossing at other times of day, when the school-zone signals weren’t normally activated.

And possibly fewer speeding tickets because motorists will no longer have to slow down to 20 mph at specific times.

“The purpose of that lower speed limit is increased safety,” Coon said. “My primary concern is making sure that our pedestrians cross the street safely, whenever that might be.”