The Rush Hour Tango

Intersections are not merely crossing points between streets; they are hubs of activity and nodes within communities where interactions and routines take place. Ideally, drivers and pedestrians would cross paths in an organized and timely fashion, like an intricate dance. However, impatience and human error often lead to one party stepping out of turn. Drivers are legally allowed to turn right through red lights, and pedestrians sprint across the street at any chance they get, regardless of the walk signal. Busy intersections like 5th and Spring St need an interface that can increase safety and awareness for people both on the road and on the sidewalk.

According to the Federal Highway Administration, approximately 65,000 pedestrians are injured by moving vehicles in a given year. In 2014, almost 5,000 of those injuries resulted in deaths. From a pedestrian’s perspective, crossing should be straightforward if you follow the visual walk signals. Additionally, the sounds of loud trucks, buses, and cars speeding down the street act as an indicator of when to or not to cross. For someone who is visually impaired or easily distracted, on the other hand, a direct and alert auditory signal might be a beneficial instruction. Many crosswalks are now implementing buttons that speak to users when pushed, emitting a forceful yet poor sound quality “wait!” or “crossing!” I would improve this interface by making the voice more clear and neutral, as the signal should be neither alarming nor calming; its purpose is to relay information, not an emotion.

From the driver’s perspective, sitting at a traffic light certainly is not an enjoyable experience. Although many states have laws protecting pedestrians in crosswalks, drivers attempt to make quick turns or speed across intersections without paying attention to the people around them. Distractions from phones, radios, and activity outside the vehicle all take away from the task at hand. I would improve driver awareness by including a signal in the intersection interface that is emitted to vehicle radios or possibly cellphones that alert a driver when pedestrians are crossing. Such a voice would need to be neutral, as Clifford Nass and Scott Brave state that “the same voice cannot be effective for all drivers.” It would be difficult for an outside interface to detect a user’s emotion from within the vehicle, so neutrality is key to appealing to the masses.

Street Smart

In this day and age of technology, everyone is staring at their phone as they walk. Peripheral vision can only do so much when it comes to a speeding car blazing down the chaotic streets of Atlanta. My interface would be a simple customizable app on your phone that would set off some kind of alert whenever you were to cross a street. An app connected to your GPS and overall phone settings would be able to send an alert every time you are about to cross a street.

For pedestrians, this could become annoying and redundant if it sounded an audible alarm, so they could make their vibration pattern a simple double short buzz. For headphone users, the alert would be sound based by lowering the volume to %50 of what it is currently at for a second and then a quick crescendo back to the original volume level. This shift in intensity of their music is easy to recognize, but does not take away from their listening experience and the timbre of the music.

The interface should be sound and not speech based because the public is more aware of the combination of haptic feedback combined with sound of vibration or the lowering of sound in the headphones than it is of other ambient noises. A voice would only distract the user further and possibly become annoying to the point that the user deletes the app. This nonverbal interface would benefit the user by providing them a safer travel throughout the intersection and surrounding city.

Safely Crossing, Safer

The intersection between 5th and spring street doesn’t particularly stand out against those in other part of the city, or even in other cities; pedestrians wait at either side, while drivers idle at the lights, both waiting to occupy the intersection while the other is not (or, for those less fortunate, at the same time). Among many menial tasks, the most important one undertaken in the intersection is crossing it.

The current interface designed to facilitate the completion of this task works; there are clear markings on the road painted in a cautionary yellow to guide walkers, and traffic lights for both the pedestrians and drivers. Accompanying this visual interface is the characteristic sound of a city; the zooming of cars, indicating their speed and position in space, and the barely audible footsteps of people. What’s missing however, is useful sound; sounds that are specifically there to help drivers and walkers safely cross. Adding sound will offer a new dimension to the interface, providing more cautionary stimulus to warn users of dangerous situations. Specifically, the addition of a loud, unique “beep” to notify pedestrians when it is and isn’t safe to cross:

walk           stop

Often, drivers are confronted with an unknowing jaywalker gazing down at his phone, unaware of the intersection, and the purely visual interface that exists. In the improved system, when the pedestrian steps about 25 feet before the intersection, a motion activated “beep” will sound if there is on-coming traffic, directing his attention away from the distraction. The addition of unique sounds is more beneficial than using speech direction; chatter between other people is often ignored, so it can be anticipated that speech from the interface would be too. Furthermore, there would be an issue of consistency; it is impossible to match the voice of the interface to every pedestrian. A neutral voice could be proposed; however, this only falls under the category of ignored speech, not differing from the existent ambient chatter.

The improvement of the driver’s experience with the interface would draw on visual properties, sound not being of use when traveling in a sound proof vehicle (for the sound to be heard, it would be irritating to the pedestrians). With our vision focused on the road (as needed to make a turn), new visual signals will surely be noticed. Adding lights indicating the presence of a pedestrian in the crosswalk (specifically for cars turning right on red) can increase safety for the pedestrians, while alleviating the drivers’ concern of hitting an unseen pedestrian.

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