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.

  • rate this

    Comment number 540.

    The inventor, Tony Heyes, late of the Blind Mobilty Research Unit, at Nottingham University is alive and well in Australia. He also invented the ultrasonic Parking Sensor, a spin-off from his aid for the blind.

  • rate this

    Comment number 539.

    @ 535.

    s.28/29 of the RTA covers dangerous and careless cycling offences.

    With regards to the actual news story here...

    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?

  • rate this

    Comment number 538.

    "Far more cars go through red lights than cyclists"

    Come on. Any sort of observation will tell you that's not true. The main fault of drivers is that they don't indicate. There is probably a similar percentage of drivers who don't indicate and cyclists who jump red lights. Both of these are the minority, but your comment is just laughable.

  • rate this

    Comment number 537.

    Mythras comment 520, 'its perfectly legal to undertake in queuing slow moving traffic', I'm sure it is but is it legal to fly through crossings when everything else has to stop?

    Far more cars go through red lights than cyclists, the idea that only cyclists break the rules & motorists always obey them is simply a lie
    see 502 & 517. The standard of driving in the UK is appalling

  • rate this

    Comment number 536.

    i knew the cone was always there i didn't know that was its purpose though, rather intriguing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 535.

    299.Norma Snockers
    2. Be exempt from the Road Traffic Act.
    They ARE exempt from the Road Traffic Act! The RTA only applies to motorised transport (cars, lorries, etc.) - that doesn't mean that cyclists are exempt under civil law (i.e. "negligence"), and if you have Household Contents insurance you also have Public Liability insurance for your liabilities while cycling.

  • rate this

    Comment number 534.

    "As I said 1,900 killed by drivers!!"

    That's not the point, just because you are unlikely to be killed by a cyclist jumping the light does not mean that you can't get hurt or even a near miss can't damage your confidence and hence independence.

    This is not a cyclist vs motorists jibe, most of both are responsible but some of both are not. The blind can not hear the cyclists as easily.

  • rate this

    Comment number 533.

    I was unlucky enough to cross a pedestrain crossing as a cyclist sped through a red signal luckily for me I was able to avert a head on collision but the cyclist was hit side ways on and got knocked of their bike

  • rate this

    Comment number 532.

    As I said 1,900 killed by drivers!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 531.

    @523.Robert Lucien
    Sometimes I think cycling is a bit like a religion. It sometimes certainly has the same kinds of levels of devotion, and the same psychopathic disrespect for other people

    sounds more like car driving to me
    personally I obey motoring law as a motorist & a cyclist but I don't know of a single other car driver that does & most think they have a god given right to the road

  • rate this

    Comment number 530.

    "Clearly, any device to help blind people across the road needs to be focussed on the dangers of cars"

    The difference is that blind people can hear the cars whereas they can't hear the cyclists. Therefore they're less likely to accidentally walk into the path of a car jumping the light than a cyclist. The increase in electric cars is a concern too as these are also very quiet.

  • rate this

    Comment number 529.

    In 2011 1,900 people were killed on the roads. To the best of my knowledge none of them were killed by cyclists.

    Clearly, any device to help blind people across the road needs to be focussed on the dangers of cars.

    As mentioned a 15mph limit would help - an as the average speed in London is 10mph it would help stop dangerous driving but not alter overall journey times by much.

  • rate this

    Comment number 528.

    Classic BBC HYS non story, still it will keep the Plebs, oops licence/tax payers happy for another day!LOL

  • rate this

    Comment number 527.

    What a lot of motorists, and cyclists for that matter, don't always appreciate is that a green traffic light means they can proceed ONLY IF the way ahead is clear. Unfortunately we live in a road rage age where people don't want to spare a few seconds of their time to help others out.

  • rate this

    Comment number 526.

    What a clever idea!

    More the better.


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