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 45.

    I wonder if there is a system to assist the stupid at crossings? Ivan Sanders would be an excellent guinea pig.

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    I think these are a good idea, it helps reduce 'false starts'.

    Just a few days ago people started crossing before the green man appeared when a lady's electric wheelchair started beeping.

    This could have caused an accident for a someone who's visually impaired falsely believing it was safe to cross.

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    @28 If an unaccompanied blind person locates a crossing they do so by sound. In which case the additional gadget is unnecessary as they hear the bleeps.
    If you read the article it does say where there are a number of crossings in the same area they do not "bleep", in case the user hears the bleep from another crossing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    There is an urban legend that if you move them when you wait it speeds up the red light. however tbh these things might protect you against walking out in front of cars but you still get cyclists who jump the crossing and hit you.. regardless if your blind or not.

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    Fascinating, although I have no need for these cones, and hope not to, it's just another bit of knowledge, and an interesting item.

    The surprise for me is that they are not part of the standards required, like the textured paving at crossing's, that's what I think we hold be pushing for.

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    12 Minutes ago

    "If an unaccompanied blind person locates a crossing they do so by sound. In which case the additional gadget is unnecessary as they hear the bleeps"

    No they don't, you CLEARLY know nothing about this subject . My Guide Dog locates the crossing and then I make the decision to cross. These are invaluable as I often cannot see or hear when it is safe to cross.

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    How many people read this article thinking they'd be told about a secret button that changed the lights immediately?

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    Interesting, but not sure why the BBC would encourage people without disabilities to play with it.

    There just might be someone else who needs it more.

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    did not even now the cones exists. I do like the countdown clock, they are on some London crossings because of accidents due to people leaving it late to cross. After reading some comments on here, there things called White sticks, perhaps you should visit the RNIB in London and observe blind people coming and going with no guide dogs. , amazing eh, what would you do if you lost your vision?

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    I found this to be most interesting. A perfect item for HYS.

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    11 Minutes ago

    What a completely pointless thing. Purely to make money for those who thought of it and of no benefit whatsoever to blind people. If they already have the means to find and identify the crossing box, they have the means to cross the road.

    Utter rubbish. My Guide Dog locates the crossing for me but I have to make the decision when to cross. These are invaluable!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    This article appears as part of the BBC's Ouch output - see top right of page for hidden clues as to why it's open for discussion.

    Re. Final paragraph: you could also do something far more productive. Badger your local authority to provide more useful tools to assist those less able than yourself.

    We take so much for granted in the UK!

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    Quite possibly 'the' most boring article I have ever, ever read.
    Yes, I did know about these. Although the ones by me have a textured cylindrical bar that spins. But why on earth is this HYS??

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    There is a poster here who is deliberately trying to wind you up. He's a troll. I'm sure you can guess who he is. Don't reply and don't negative vote him, just ignore. he's after negative votes- it validates him.

    To stay on topic- a good, cheap, unobtrusive thing that actually saves lives. What a good idea.

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    In Australia and New Zealand, the crossings (or at least the one's I saw) make a noise all the time and the noise changes when it's time to cross. They also have pulsating buttons (so you can feel them if you can't hear the noise) and the crossing point has a raised arrow pointing in the direction of crossing. I thought they were a pretty good idea.

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    I am visualy impaired, and people with worse sight than myself need all the help we can get to cross busy roads. All we need now is something to stop cyclists ignoring red lights and thinking its okay to cycle past people when they have the right of way on a pelican crossing. Its happened to me twice in the past couple of months, and it can be quite frightening

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    What a simple but excellent idea. It is about time that legislation was introduced to make the fitting mandatory.

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    If an unaccompanied blind person locates a crossing they do so by sound. In which case the additional gadget is unnecessary as they hear the bleeps. If a deaf person locates a crossing they do so by sight, so again the gadget is superflous. Again 'Health & Safety' totally over the top and ill conceived. But I loved the caveat about the gadget making your fingers sold in winter. Dangerous!

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    25 Listener. Haven't you ever noticed that the pavement slab at crossings are bobbled, this is so blind people can find them. Jus because you can obviously see doesn't mean you should prejudice those who can't. It is an excellent idea and should be rolled out across them all.

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    Who knows, maybe this interesting article was given HYS to open up a mature discussion about the challenges faced by disabled and very old people on a daily basis.

    Maybe it will also help to highlight what is done to assist people and, more importantly, what can be done.


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