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Street Crossing With Lights: Basic Skills


Reprinted from Module 54 of Modular Instruction for Independent Travel for Students Who are Blind or Visually Impaired: Preschool through High School, by Doris Willoughby and Sharon Monthei, 1998 National Federation of the Blind.

Here a blind student confidently, safely, and successfully completes his first street crossing at a traffic light. While he could not see that the light was red, using the flow of traffic as a guide allowed him to cross at the appropriate time. Introduction: One of the most basic outside travel experiences in modern America consists of crossing at street lights. It is a fundamental necessity for citizens from all walks of life. Readers should note two things about the Willoughby and Monthei�s article on street crossings: first, the process should begin when the child is in preschool or kindergarten, and second, by elementary school the child should have mastered the technique and the process as a whole. The expectation is that blind children will be crossing streets with lights at the same time and with the same level of safety as other children. The Modular Instruction book maintains these high levels of expectations, accompanied by a thorough and practical approach, throughout its 398 pages. In the article by Pat Renfranz in this issue, the mother questioned whether there was anything out there to provide instructional guidance for the transition period between Joe Cutter�s early years approach to adult-level instruction. Well, this publication is it. Willoughby and Monthei have an answer, and they get it right.

OBJECTIVE: (Preschool and kindergarten) The student will indicate the direction in which a nearby car is going, and begin to tell whether a light is red or green.

OBJECTIVE: (Elementary grades) The student will cross an uncomplicated intersection having red/green lights and moderate traffic.

AGE OF STUDENT: Preschool: readiness and limited independence.

Elementary school and up: increasing independence as appropriate for age.

Street crossing
Street patterns
Traffic movement
Sound direction and meaning
Parallel and perpendicular
Right and left
Corners, turns, and angles
Moving straight ahead
Correcting a path

Compass directions
Communication and instructions

SEE ALSO (Other Modules):
Around the Block
Uncontrolled Intersection
Street Crossing With Little Traffic
Street Crossing-Developing Flexibility and Competence
Complicated Street Crossings
Street Crossing With Obstruction

FIGURE 54-1: Crossing Fourth Street

CAUTION: Although a competent blind traveler is no less safe than a competent sighted traveler, everyone should exercise appropriate caution in traffic.

Assist young children and beginners as necessary for safety, with independence increasing as skills grow.

REMARKS: Talk with parents and other teachers about how much independence will be allowed outside of the lesson.

After school hours it is the parents, not you, who have authority to permit a youngster to cross a given street. Invite them to watch a lesson or demonstration, as preparation for their granting added privileges.


The youngest student can begin to listen to traffic and use her cane, even if an adult always holds her hand when in or near a street. The parent or teacher should talk with the child, explaining what is happening and gradually helping her to interpret traffic independently.

Sometimes, explain in full detail: �OK, now we are waiting to cross. We can't go, because cars are going back and forth in front of us.� [Take the child's hand--the hand that is not holding the cane--and move her hand back and forth from side to side to imitate the motion of the perpendicular traffic.] �Our light is red now....

�Listen--they are stopping.... Now we hear the cars beside us going.� [Move her hand again, forward and backward to indicate motion of parallel traffic.] �Here we go; our light is green....�

Note: Wait until parallel traffic actually moves--an instant after the light turns green.

The child can then hear the change of directionality, understand what is going on, and start walking with the timing she will use when crossing alone.

Later, start asking the child herself to state when to cross. Just as very young sighted children do, she can call out �Green, go!� long before she is old enough to be allowed to cross alone.

(Note: A common misunderstanding occurs when parents think the child is �late� in recognizing the green light, when actually she is correctly noting when the traffic actually moves. When teaching a young child to understand what she hears, the adult should also call it �green� only when the traffic actually starts: an instant after the light itself changes. Otherwise the child and the helper will never quite agree, and the child will be confused.)

Provide prompting: �OK, now we are at the corner. Is our light red or green?... Yes, it is red, because the cars are going back and forth in front of us....

�Keep listening....Yes, now it's green. Here we go. Listen to the cars going along beside us....�

(Preschool and elementary grades)
Children of preschool age may not know the word �traffic.� It is best to say �cars� at first. Later, if desired, teach the term �traffic.�

Similarly, younger children will not know the terms �parallel� and �perpendicular.� (The youngest ones cannot even pronounce them!)

At first, speak of �cars going across in front of us� and �cars beside us.� Supplement with physical demonstration, as with the hand motion described above.

Preschoolers may even be unclear about the meaning of �beside.�

Practice with toys and stuffed animals may be helpful. Also note examples of role-playing, below.

As with vocabulary in general, consider the child's age in relation to directional concepts.

A preschool child is still learning about right and left, and may have no idea of compass directions. She does not have the maturity to learn these in their entirety at the present time. This does not mean that she cannot start to cross streets. But it does mean that vocabulary must be simplified, and independence will be only partial at first.

The Example in this Module on �Pacing Instruction� gives steps for gradually increasing independence. The teacher can use more and more sophisticated language as time goes on and the student can do the same.

See the Modules �Right and Left� and �Compass Directions� for detailed suggestions for activities, many of which relate directly to street crossings.

Tell the student to listen closely and line up as straight as she can by listening to the parallel traffic flow. If she is wrong, correct her before she starts to cross. Then ask her to listen again to determine the parallel and perpendicular traffic. (When facing the wrong direction, the student may verbalize, �The traffic is running at an angle,� without realizing she is the one who is crooked.)

If a beginner has trouble comprehending traffic movements at the intersection, move to the middle of the block and listen. A half block from a light, there will be notable stops and starts in the flow of traffic. With some practice in noting this change (in two directions instead of four), the student can more easily grasp the various directions found at the intersection.

Standing at the edge of the street, the student listens carefully. If she hears the traffic moving across in front of her, she knows her own light is red. If she hears traffic moving parallel to the path she plans to take, she has the green light. However, if she arrives in the middle of a green light, she should wait through a cycle until the light turns green again. (See Example below, �Stale Green.�)

Figure 54-1: Crossing Fourth StreetFigure 54-1, the student stands on the northwest corner of the intersection. She plans to cross Fourth Street, which runs north and south. When she hears the traffic on Fourth slow and stop, and the cars on Elm start to move east and west, the student begins to cross.

She should move briskly and assertively. If she is very hesitant, drivers may genuinely doubt that she is really going to cross.

To cross correctly, the student listens carefully to determine direction, proceeds parallel to the traffic which is moving beside her, and continues to listen to the vehicles (including idling motors of stopped cars on Fourth) at all times. She walks as fast as possible, because she will get across faster and walk in a straighter path.

(Listening to the footsteps of other pedestrians is not a reliable guide. Many people cross at odd angles or against the light.)

Upon reaching the opposite curb, it is important to sweep the area with the cane to check for obstacles such as utility poles. At the same time, however, note that it is dangerous to remain in the street. Any exploring on the other side, such as looking for the sidewalk, should be done after stepping out of the street.

Explain to students and others that a blind pedestrian will not always cross in exactly the same way as a sighted person, and that this is all right. For example, people may worry if the blind traveler is not exactly on the marked crosswalk. Actually, as long as she is crossing in essentially the right area, it is not necessary that she walk precisely on the painted lines. However, by listening to where the idling cars are, the student can have a good understanding of the location of the crosswalk.

Similarly, the blind person's crossing may not precisely coincide with the timing of the �walk� light (if present), and this too is all right. The cane gives her the right to cross at a reasonable time. However, she must realize that she cannot count on immunity from danger solely because she is using a cane; it is necessary to pay attention to traffic and proceed carefully.

If there is so little traffic that she cannot determine whether the lights are red or green, she should simply cross as though there were no controls. Otherwise she might stand there forever.

Do not assume that a student--even one with considerable useful sight--understands all about the physical structure of an intersection. A tactual map or model is very helpful. Examine the map. Walk through the actual intersection and analyze various aspects. Ask questions to probe the student's understanding. Encourage the student to ask questions, making it clear that you will not belittle any question.

Does she understand where the crosswalk is in relation to the corner, and that lines are painted on the street? Explain that she need not be exactly on the lines, but should be in the right general area.

Does she understand about traffic lanes, again with lines painted on the street?

We speak of �the traffic light� at a particular corner. In fact, however, there are lights facing four different directions. Moreover, at a busy corner there are usually several complete fixtures, all operating together. Explain this, and examine things physically when possible.

Kindergarten classes often have model traffic signals which are low and accessible.

Examine the control box; discuss normal operation and possible malfunction. Note the clicking sound which can often be heard. The student should understand what this is, and realize that sometimes it can be an added clue to the changing lights. Emphasize, however, that this is only supplementary. It varies with different systems, may be heard on only one of the corners, and cannot be heard over loud ambient noise. Traffic, as always, is what the student should mainly attend to. (One instructor said, �Listen to the traffic--not the stoplight. No one ever got run over by a stoplight.�)

Age Eight and Below
Most younger students (and some who are older) need considerable explanation and demonstration of parallel and perpendicular traffic.

Explain: �The cross traffic goes across in front of you--back and forth, like this.... Perpendicular is another name for the cross traffic. When that traffic is moving, it has the green light; therefore, your light is red and you do not move.

�The parallel traffic moves beside you, like this.... When it moves, you and the traffic both have the same green light, so you can move.�

Listen to actual traffic. Examine tactual maps. Move model �traffic� around (using toy cars or other small objects, or simply tracing paths with the fingers.)

With a first grader we recently did some role playing:

�Kari will pretend to be the cars going north and south on Fourth Street. Jim will be the cars going east and west on Elm. You [Gunar, the beginning student] will be the light; I'll stand with you and help you know what to do.

�OK, now, your head is the traffic light... Yes, that's quite a silly idea, isn't it? Yes, pretty funny.

�Your face is the green light facing north, and we also pretend you have a green light on the back of your head facing south. So when you're facing north, like now, the lights are green for Kari.

�Go ahead, Kari. Show us the cars going north and south.... [Kari �drives� back and forth, north and south, making suitable traffic noises]

�OK, Traffic Light, now you are changing colors. Your lights are yellow, and you are going to be facing the other way. [Kari screeches to a stop.]...

�The green lights are east and west now, for Elm Street.� [Jim �drives� back and forth, with suitable sound effects]....

This kind of demonstration is fun and very graphic. As necessary or desired, the person playing the light can operate with much or little help; roles can be exchanged; etc.

Over Age Eight
Older students may benefit from a brief, age-appropriate version of role-playing. For example, I asked an eleven-year-old to face north while I walked back and forth saying, �I'm the north-south traffic.� Then she faced west while I walked back and forth saying, �I'm the east-west traffic.�

Detailed suggestions for walking straight across appear in the Module, �Street Crossing with Little Traffic.�

The traveler must avoid two opposite errors--veering too close to the parallel traffic (i.e., walking in the parallel street instead of beside it) or too far away from it (i.e., wandering along in the cross street).

The presence of traffic actually makes it easier to cross straight. However, a student accustomed to quiet streets needs to learn to include additional information. She must pay close attention both to moving cars and to idling motors, so as to walk in the clear path between the parallel traffic and the stopped traffic.

Provide experience with a car stopped in the crosswalk. Help the student to recognize this and to be careful without being frightened. If at all possible, it is much better to go around the front of the car, to maximize being seen by the driver. But if crossing in front would put the traveler into a busy stream of parallel traffic, it may be necessary to go behind.

The Module, �Street Crossing With Obstruction,� has more detail on this subject.

After some experience, a traveler may walk toward an intersection and realize (before stopping) that the light is green. Discuss whether it is wise to simply continue without stopping.

My instructor called this a �stale green,� and said that it was worse than stale bread. If the traveler starts to cross after the light has been green awhile, it will probably change to red long before she reaches the opposite curb. Therefore, tell your student to stop until the light turns red and then green again. Then she can step out just after the traffic first begins to move, on a light that is not �stale.�

A short-timed light may still change to yellow before she finishes crossing, but she should be able to cross basically within the intended time.

A good rule is, �If you aren't sure about when to go, then don't go.� There is no fire. There is no danger in waiting. Also, many beginners need extra time to line up straight by listening to the traffic patterns. The most important things to do before crossing are to listen carefully and line up straight.

An exception: An experienced traveler, approaching a familiar intersection and hearing the change to green as she approaches, may indeed correctly gauge whether enough time is left. But usually the rule, especially for beginners, should be �Never cross on a stale green light.�

Position While Waiting: When the traveler is standing and listening at length, she should pull the cane up vertically to indicate she is not cross¬ing. When she is ready to cross, however, she must not suddenly step out without warning. When the traveler is expecting to cross soon, the cane should be at the normal angle well before she starts to move, as a signal to motorists.

(Elementary grades)
Elementary schools often have a �School Patrol.� At busy crossings near the school, an older student (or an adult) stands at each curb, directing the children when to cross. (Typically, the guard holds his arms out to the side when the light is red. When the light is green, he steps aside, or may walk part way across with the children.)

Discuss the Patrol with your young student, possibly demonstrating with role playing.

You may decide to talk with Patrol members about the blind child's ability. Urge them to say something aloud when they release students to cross. Explain that the student can cross with as much independence as others.

Have the student go all the way around an intersection. Ask what color the light is at each point; insist that the student only cross at the beginning of a green light.

Ask her to describe the traffic pattern, including where cars are coming from and whether they turned or went straight. Emphasize compass directions, as, �That car was going north on Fourth and turned east on Elm.�

Go around at least once clockwise, and at least once counterclockwise.

The student must understand that a turning car does not safely indicate when and where she should cross.

Help beginners recognize whether a car is turning or proceeding straight ahead. Stand at the corner (with cane pulled up vertically, to indicate that one is not crossing) and listen through several cycles. Discuss the direction of various vehicles. Help the student move her hand to indicate motion, including turning--this is particularly graphic and helps you know how well she understands.

Such practice helps to prevent the beginner's fol¬lowing a car's path around a corner, instead of proceeding in the straight path desired.

When to step out:
When the traveler hears the parallel traffic beside her start up, she should not actually step out until the first car has gone far enough to make it clear that it is going straight. Otherwise, the vehicle might be making �right turn on red,� in which case pedestrians do not have a green light either.

She should step out when the majority of traffic moves, or the straight traffic, rather than when she hears a single car start up. She must listen to all of the traffic, not just a single car which may be about to turn.

Emphasize that the movements of other pedestrians are not a reliable guide.

Pacing is an important responsibility of the teacher.

One student may be thrilled at emerging independence and eager to cross many times during the first lesson. Another may be very fearful and reluctant. Most are somewhere in between.

Observe the student to see what she does when things do not go right; watch for signs of fear or poor judgment. Provide coaching and physical assistance as needed.

Younger students, especially, often cannot grasp all aspects at once. But this is no excuse for putting off instruction altogether. Instead, provide help with one or more aspects while expecting the student to handle others. Following is a good sequence for gradually increasing independence.

This sequence may be completed in a lesson or two for a mature student. A preschool student will probably not achieve full independence at that age; but proceeding part way through the sequence provides a basis for fast progress later.

The Module, �Street Crossing with Little Traffic� has many suggestions also relevant here.

Sequence for Increasing Independence
� The student takes your arm (using the human-guide technique), and walks across with you while you explain traffic movements.
� The student helps to decide when to start across. While walking across with you, the student explains traffic movements.
� The student decides when to start across, and does not take your arm. However, you walk behind with your hand on her shoulder, gently guiding her path and encouraging appropriate speed of walking.
� As in the previous stage, you walk behind the student and guide her as needed. However, you place your hand on her shoulder less and less. If there are turning vehicles or other complications which the student does not yet understand, you tell her what to do.
� You walk close to the student, but no longer provide physical guidance. You continue to explain traffic patterns she does not understand.
� The student crosses an uncomplicated lighted intersection independently. She understands turning traffic.

NOTE: At all times the teacher expects to intervene if the student (a) is placing herself in danger which she is not prepared to handle, or (b) is having difficulty which is beyond her skill or maturity.

FOLLOW-UP: Incorporate lighted crossings into ongoing practice. Do not let your student become �rusty.�

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