New Seattle crosswalk noises not music to the ears of all

SEATTLE -- New 'ticking' crosswalks in the city of Seattle have some people ticked off.

The sound, described by traffic engineers as a "rapid ticking" noise, is meant to help people cross the street safely. It will soon replace the chirping and "cuckoo" noises, which can be found at nearly 100 of the city's 1,500 intersections, said Ahmed Darrat with the Seattle Department of Transportation.

"Research has shown (the current sound) is kind of ambiguous to people because it can be confused with actual cuckoos and chirps of real birds," said Darrat, manager of SDOT's traffic signal shop. "We want to make sure signals are unambiguous."

The city also must comply with laws for people with disabilities, Darrat said. Federal guidelines suggest the rapid ticking noise is better and safer for people who are visually impaired, Darrat added. The new intersections also have crosswalk buttons that vibrate, which are helpful for people who are hard of hearing or deaf, and are on shorter poles.

"Some people describe it almost as a machine gun or a 'rat-a-tat' and that can be very unnerving and distracting," said Andrea Travis, who works for Lighthouse for the Blind. "The new audible pedestrian signals also have a mechanical and metallic noise. Cars make a similar sound."

Travis, who lives in Downtown Seattle and has been partially blind since birth, said she walks about 1-2 miles per day. Being able to distinguish which direction to walk is crucial, she said.

"It's really important there be a distinctive sound when crossing east / west versus north / south," Travis added. "The new signals have the exact same sound. It's almost identical."

Making matters worse, Travis said, is that her organization wasn't involved in the discussion before the signals started to be installed.

"We really appreciate working with the city of Seattle," Travis said, "And we do try to be a voice for the blind community. We weren't really consulted on this."

SDOT spokeswoman Mary Beth Turner said there was no local outreach because the standards were set on a federal level.

"We don't take input on how they're set up because we don't have any flexibility," Turner said. "We have to go by the federal standards."

"It's very, very scary stuff. It's not safe for people who are blind," added Camille Jassny, a Capitol Hill resident who has been dealing with vision loss all her life. "They did a great job for people that are maybe deaf because they can feel it. It vibrates. But a blind person going up and trying to find the pole it's next to impossible. And it sounds like a gun going off."

The new 'ticking' audible traffic signals can be found at 23rd and Massachusetts, along with a few other intersections. Darrat said. New intersections in the city would see them installed on a gradual basis. Each intersection costs $3,000 to $5,000, plus labor, to install, with most of the funds coming from federal grants.

"We're committed to every single new signal but it's just a matter of funding," he added.