The secret button at pedestrian crossings

Rotating cone on pelican crossing

Few seem to know about this useful little device, which is surprising because in many areas of the country it can be found on every street... and it saves lives.

What is it?

It's a small, unassuming plastic or metal cone which you can find on the underside of pedestrian crossings.

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When the green man lights up to show traffic should stop and it's your turn to cross, the cone starts spinning. It points downwards and has tactile ridges on it.

What's it doing there?

It's there for those people who can't see the lights, like visually impaired or blind people. When they feel it spinning they know they have the right of way.

When crossing a road you can stand near the control box with your hand on the cone and independently know you can cross when it spins, without having to get help from a passer-by, if there is one.

But I thought crossings beeped for blind people?

Not all crossings make sounds. For instance, if two crossings are close to each other neither will beep in case pedestrians are misled into walking out into oncoming traffic on the wrong road. And, in any case, a tactile indicator helps deaf-blind people too. They can't hear audible signals. The cones provide the same information as the beeping signal but in tactile form. Some crossings both beep and rotate.

How do people use it?

Hugh Huddy is blind and works for visual impairment charities' umbrella group Vision 2020. He says he is always pleased to see a cone on a crossing but wouldn't just walk into a road because of a spinning mechanism: "An important point to make is that I wait for the cone to rotate but combine the information that it gives me with listening to the traffic on the road in front of me. You can hear whether they're changing gear or slowing down.

Pedestrian with hand on rotating cone at a pelican crossing

"The cone isn't telling you it's safe to cross, it's telling you the light is on. For instance, cyclists like whizzing through crossings sometimes, even though they shouldn't."

Do all crossings have cones?

No. Crossings are maintained by local authorities which are not legally obliged to make them accessible. The Department for Transport says it encourages their use, though, and says that all signal-controlled crossings can have them. This includes the ones with the attractive bird related names - pelicans, puffins, toucans - and also junction crossings.

Who invented them?

Nottingham University took the idea to the Department of Transport, as it was known then, in the 1980s. It wasn't until 1989 that they began to appear on our streets. Interestingly, the cones still aren't built into the boxes and have to be retro-fitted. Radix, the company behind the cones, says it has sold about 10,000 units per year since 1995.

What do I do with this information?

You could try it out for yourself. Do as blind people do and stand at the crossing with your hand jammed under the control box waiting for the cone to spin. Beware, in winter do it with gloves on, that metal control box can be freezing cold.

Information was provided by the Department for Transport and Royal National Institute of Blind People.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 545.

    Pedestrian crossings are a bureaucrat's wet dream. For one, it is daft having to wait at a red light despite KNOWING it is safe to proceed as you can see no one crossing. This point is invalid at junctions.
    Though on the contrary, I do use this to my advantage. As the bus stop I wait at every day is just beyond a crossing, if I am running late for my bus, I press the lights in hope it holds it up.

  • rate this

    Comment number 544.

    London is not the UK, The dept of Transport has, in recent years, formulated new advice for cyclists in recognition of the fact that the vast majority of car drivers are incapable of overtaking safely. Most drivers are ignorant of the highway code & would be incapable of passing a modern comprehensive driving test

  • rate this

    Comment number 543.


    Really? Do you live somewhere there are no bikes? In London, while most will stop for the lights, more often than not one or two will keep going. It's so normal you expect to have to check as a pedestrian, but with cars, maybe 3 in the year (3 too many). It's true that it is a small percentage of the cyclists and generally when it is "safe", but it's a fallacy to suggest it's not common.

  • rate this

    Comment number 542.

    "Far more cars go through red lights than cyclists"
    Come on. Any sort of observation will tell you that's not true.

    On the contrary I see cars go through red lights often, far more than bikes
    most car driver are completely ignorant of how to drive, hardly any know how to overtake or how to park, most cars not parked in accordance with HC 238-243 & 248-252

  • rate this

    Comment number 541.

    "HOW IS THIS NEWS?? Just write to/call all registered deaf and/or blind people so they know where they stand. What difference does it make to anyone else?"

    It's not news, it's education! As it says at the top, it's part of a series of articles giving an insight into disabled life. The difference that it makes is increasing awareness and also - it's quite interesting.


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