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 85.

    I feel kinda proud for knowing about this already!

    Also round Birmingham city centre cars are just as bad for jumping reds as bikes are - it's terrifying sometimes. At least a cyclist isn't going to kill you!

  • rate this

    Comment number 84.

    Everybody pays road tax/fees, as it is included in the price of everything we consume.

    So pedestrians and cyclists pay the same amount of road tax. Are some people suggesting we do away with sidewalks and crossings?

    And I stop for red lights. That said, the number of drivers running red lights outnumbers the number of cyclists doing the same, and the danger of a car doing it is vastly greater.

  • rate this

    Comment number 83.

    Here we go again, car drivers vs the spandex wearing cyclists

    Well, you have the right of way? Then (for example) I use a small narrow country (national speed limit road), that has a cycle path parallel to the road behind the hedges (perfectly safe). Yet they decide to use the road and have caused RTA's and cost the life of both car drivers/passengers AND cyclists.

    Cyclists have no common sense.

  • rate this

    Comment number 82.

    Ah the old cyclists don't pay road tax argument. Well guess what, neither do car drivers. They pay Vehicle Excise Duty.

  • rate this

    Comment number 81.

    "Cyclists like whizzing through crossings sometimes, even though they shouldn't."

    - Some cars run red lights.
    - Some pedestrians cross roads without looking.
    - Some cyclists ignore one way streets.

    The list is endless, but I suspect the people who are irresponsible using one form of transport are irresponsible using all. Don't single out one group.

  • rate this

    Comment number 80.

    @72 "As a pedestrian nearly getting wiped out from behind on the pavement by a bike"

    Unfortunately, whilst this behaviour angers me, i've also been a commuter cyclist and can see why some choose to ride the footpath. It's generally people who've recently ditched the car and decided to cycle to work instead, they try the road a few times, get scared and jump straight onto the footpaths.

  • rate this

    Comment number 79.

    I love the old drivers pay road tax cyclists don't nonsense as if nobody riding a bike also owns a car...

  • rate this

    Comment number 78.

    Perhaps you should read the highway code. Specifically the bit that allows cyclists the exact same rights of way on the road that cars have. Whether they pay or what you think doesn't come in to it I'm afraid.

    Also, the whinging about cyclists is only from Londeners. Every other major city doesn't have a problem.

  • rate this

    Comment number 77.

    It's not an "anti cyclist rant" to suggest that cyclists jumping lights at a crossing is a safety issue. In the UK when the green man is showing or a pedestrian is waiting at a zebra crossing the pedestrian has right of way. Any failure to observe this is a crime. That is the law. If a driver is caught failing to observe this they get three points and a fine.

  • rate this

    Comment number 76.

    I can sympathise with cyclists having problems with the bad driving of some motorists,but if traffic lights are at red I can;'t see how they are going to get run over by traffic at a standstill.If there is a problem they sould deal with it by stopping well short..not breaking the Traffic Act.

  • rate this

    Comment number 75.

    Why on earth is this blog being used as an excuse to attack cyclists?

    1 - Cyclists did not kill nearly 500 pedestrians last year - cars did.
    2 - Drivers do not pay "road tax" they pay excise duty and it does not give one the right of way over other road users
    3 - Most cyclists do not in fact run red lights
    4 - The BBC need to remove posts inciting violence and hatred against cyclists.

  • rate this

    Comment number 74.

    very interesting gloss #66 dont motorists pay to use the road and cyclists just use it. in my world he who pays the piper calls the tune. maybe if cyclists want equal rights on roads they should perhaps pay for that in some small way.

  • rate this

    Comment number 73.

    Anything that makes our roads safer is a good idea. However, in Bristol most of our pedestrian lights are being changed to puffins at great expense with a detrimental effect on safety and traffic flow. These new lights have no flashing amber so are obviously much slower to change. The green man is also mounted in a way that makes it much more difficult to see and confuses.

  • rate this

    Comment number 72.

    Never knew that. I know Pelicans stay red to traffic long after the button pusher has departed the scene & drivers won't go on a flashing amber. It helps make the ever increasing traffic congestion worse. As a pedestrian nearly getting wiped out from behind on the pavement by a bike where there is a "cycle lane" reducing vehicle road width by about 30% & no one uses it is as bad.More congestion!

  • rate this

    Comment number 71.

    61. Cyclists run red lights so as not to be smeared over the road by traffic turning left.

    If cyclists are worried about this they should dismount and cross the road, not put other people in danger instead of themselves. The height of selfishness!

  • rate this

    Comment number 70.

    Ooooooh, another cyclist arguement...

    Before anyone makes a fool of themselves, i'd just like to point out that "Road Tax" doesn't exist and VED does not pay a penny toward the roads.

    Thanks and carry on :)

  • rate this

    Comment number 69.

    Cyclists should have to take a test, they're a menace to pedestrians.

  • rate this

    Comment number 68.

    I remember discovering these when I was a child in the early to mid-nineties. I always assumed that everyone knew about them, guess not. Noticed the torque control same time also, used to try to stop the cone spinning when I was a child.

  • rate this

    Comment number 67.

    There is often a sequence built in to the crossing control to ensure it doesn't change every few seconds for pedestrians arriving regularly. The control sets a minimum time, say a minute or slightly more, between changes. If nobody has pressed the button recently, they should change right away. If the crossing has been recently used, you wait until the delay expires.

  • rate this

    Comment number 66.

    Amazing the amount of bare face lies on here people use to justify their arguments. I'm a driver, a cyclist and a pedestrian. They are all as bad as each other! Drivers think they have the right of way at all times, cyclists think they also have right of way and can use pavements or roads as they see fit and pedestrians step in to traffic as they think they have right of way. Be considerate to all


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