How Blind People Learn to Cross Streets

Medically Reviewed by Jabeen Begum, MD on November 02, 2022

You may feel alarmed or confused if you spot a blind pedestrian waiting at a crossing light. In most cases, though, there’s no need to worry. Advances in technology have improved accessibility in many areas. As a result, many blind people or people with visual impairments can learn to navigate even the busiest city streets confidently and safely. 

A blind person can use assistive technologies, aids, other senses, and many other methods to detect traffic flows. These devices and skills make it possible for visually impaired pedestrians to cross the street and travel independently by foot. However, blind people can still face challenges when they cross the street. Learn about strategies and tools that people with visual impairments use to navigate street crossings.

How Does a Blind Person Know When to Cross the Street? 

A blind person can learn to cross a road independently using a combination of external cues. Additionally, over time, many pedestrians with visual impairments develop a mental map of their local areas by counting streets and memorizing audio signals. This tactic helps them recognize what street they’ve reached and predict traffic patterns. 

Other strategies that a blind pedestrian can use to cross a street successfully include: 

  • Asking nearby pedestrians to tell them when it’s safe to cross
  • Figuring out the correct direction to cross the road and walking in a straight line
  • Listening to vehicular sounds to understand the layout of the intersection
  • Seeking traffic control systems, like a pushbutton pole that triggers a walk signal
  • Using physical cues like the curb or the slope of the sidewalk to find a crosswalk
  • Waiting to hear traffic moving parallel to the crosswalk before stepping into the intersection

By combining some or all of these tactics, a person with visual impairments can cross a street effectively.

What Challenges Do Blind People Face When Crossing the Street? 

Despite the tactics mentioned above, blind people still face many challenges when walking through intersections. These difficulties can range from minor inconveniences to potentially life-threatening problems. 

Common challenges for visually-impaired pedestrians include: 

  • Background noise. Urban settings often have constant and distracting environmental sounds like airplanes passing overhead or people talking. These noises can make it difficult for blind pedestrians to evaluate traffic patterns.  
  • Inability to easily detect approaching vehicles. As manufacturers produce increasingly quiet cars, blind people may struggle to hear oncoming vehicles in time. This difficulty can lead to pedestrians getting struck by cars if they enter the intersection at the wrong moment.  
  • Lack of traffic. Quiet streets can also pose challenges for people with visual impairments. A lack of passing vehicles can make it difficult for pedestrians to audibly determine when the walking interval begins. 
  • No pedestrian phase. Some low-traffic streets or roads designed without accessible features may not have a pushbutton signal, a pedestrian phase, or even a painted crosswalk.

All of these factors can make street crossings hazardous or impossible for blind pedestrians.

How Can Technology Help a Blind Person Cross the Street? 

Pedestrians with visual impairments can use assistive technologies to help them cross the road safely. These innovative tools build on the person’s wayfinding abilities and external signals to help them determine the best moment to walk through the intersection. 

Examples of current and in-development blind person aids specifically designed to improve street crossings include: 

  • Accessible pedestrian signals. These pushbutton devices have several features that help blind people cross intersections. These may include audible walk signals, a button that provides additional time to cross the road, pushbutton locator tones, and vibrotactile walk indications for deaf pedestrians. 
  • Assistive cane. Many people recognize the signature white cane carried by many people with visual impairments. This tool reminds drivers to give blind pedestrians space, and it also helps the user detect obstacles in their path as they cross the street. 
  • Mobile applications. Smartphone applications can audibly announce when the pedestrian crossing phase begins, help blind people activate the walk signal without locating a pushbutton pole, and identify street crossings. 
  • Smart traffic signals. Researchers at Carnegie Mellon University have developed a smart traffic signal system. A smartphone can transmit information about the pedestrian’s speed and location to the traffic signal. Based on this data, the traffic signal can adjust the traffic patterns to give a blind person extra time to navigate the intersection. 

How Do Guide Dogs Help a Blind Person Navigate Street Crossings? 

A specially trained guide dog can allow blind people to gain independence and safely travel across city streets. When a dog and handler team approaches a street crossing, they work together to determine when it’s safe to cross. Typically, the process involves these steps: 

  • The dog stops at the curb when the team reaches the crosswalk. 
  • The handler listens to traffic patterns and commands the dog to move forward when they hear vehicles traveling parallel to the crosswalk. 
  • The dog watches for oncoming traffic.
  • If the dog decides that it’s safe to proceed, the dog will guide the handler to the other side.

A guide dog will be disobedient when necessary and refuse to move forward if they see cars approaching or obstacles in the handler’s way. With the aid of these highly-trained canines, blind people can traverse crosswalks with reduced risks.

What Happens If a Blind Person Can’t Safely Cross the Street? 

Sometimes, visually impaired individuals may not be able to determine when they should cross the street even after using assistive technologies. In these cases, the pedestrian can use several tactics to continue their journey: 

  • Ask for help from another pedestrian or a passing driver
  • Request a ride or use public transportation 
  • Seek a different crossing 

Blind pedestrians can also advocate for more accessible crossings in their local area. For instance, they can request that their city install accessible pedestrian signals to make streets easier to cross.

What to Do When a Blind Person Crosses the Street

If you’re a sighted driver, you can make it easier for blind pedestrians to cross the street. Steps that you can use to improve accessibility and safety include: 

  • Carefully checking for the presence of pedestrians before driving through an intersection 
  • Obeying all traffic laws, including posted speed limits 
  • Staying alert for signals that visually impaired people may live in the area, such as a blind-person-crossing sign 
  • Yielding to any pedestrians waiting to cross the street 

These simple tasks can help protect blind pedestrians when they use crosswalks. Educating yourself about how blind people cross streets and promoting accessibility can also help you make it easier for visually impaired pedestrians to cross the street. With mutual awareness, patience, and safety measures, blind pedestrians and drivers can share the roads harmoniously.

Show Sources

Accessible Pedestrian Signals: “Understanding How Blind Pedestrians Cross at Signalized Intersections."
American Council of the Blind: “Accessible Pedestrian Signals (APS)," “Drivers’ Yielding Behavior.”
Carnegie Mellon University: “Smart Traffic Signals Will Help Blind Cross Streets.”
Central Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired: “What Are the Different Kinds of Canes?”
National Aging and Disability Transportation Center: “Can I Cross the Street? Considerations for a Blind Pedestrian.”}.
PLoS One: Guide dogs’ navigation after a single journey: A descriptive study of path reproduction, homing, shortcut and detour.”
The Seeing Eye: “Seeing Eye Dogs.”
University of Minnesota: “Smartphone app helps pedestrians with visual impairment cross intersections.”
Western Michigan University: “Enhancing Intersection Safety for the Blind and Visually Impaired (BVI) Pedestrian Using Device-to-Infrastructure Communication.”

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