What To Know About Accessible Pedestrian Signals (Audible Signs)

Medically Reviewed by Dany Paul Baby, MD on October 18, 2022
4 min read

In a fast-paced and ever-changing world where technology continues to grow all around, the evolving technology must be used to cater to a wide audience, including those with disabilities and impairments. 

Technology has helped those with disabilities through accessible pedestrian signals, or audible signs, which are a great tool to help enable blind individuals to safely cross the road. 

Accessible pedestrian signals (APS), APS signal, or pedestrian pushbuttons, is a device that tells individuals about “walk” and “don’t walk” intermissions at intersections. Individuals who can see the “walk” and “don’t walk” signs or the red, yellow, and green traffic signals know when they're able to proceed. Blind and low-vision individuals cannot see these indicators and can’t tell when it’s safe to cross the road. For those who are low-vision or blind, crossing the street without some sort of signal can be dangerous and even life-threatening. APS devices help these individuals. 

APS devices have various names depending on which country they’re in. Some examples are: 

  • Acoustic signals
  • Audible crossing indicators
  • Audible pedestrian signals
  • Audible pedestrian traffic signals
  • Audible traffic signals
  • Audio-tactile signals

APS devices work by informing visually impaired individuals about when it is safe to cross the street through audible sounds, vibrations, and spoken messages. Besides letting you know when the "walk" interval has started or ended, APS devices also provide the following information: 

  • Location of pushbuttons 
  • Crosswalk and curb locations 
  • Names of streets and intersections, provided through braille or speech messages
  • Geometry of intersections through tactile maps or speech messages 

APS devices were once installed as overhead cuckoo-chirp signals, but have since evolved. These initial devices are no longer recommended in the U.S. due to the cuckoo-chirp signals confusing individuals about which street had the “walk” sign. The cuckoo-chirp used different tones to give direction, but many found it challenging to remember which tones were associated with which direction. Additionally, birds would often copy the tone, adding to the confusion of when it was safe to walk.

Since then, there have been several different types of APS devices made. These devices are known as pushbutton-integrated accessible pedestrian signals. These new APS devices come with many features, including: 

  • Pushbutton locator sounds: Pushbutton locator sounds signal once per second to help you find the pedestrian pushbutton. The sounds are emitted through a speaker located at the pushbutton and can be heard 6 to 12 feet away. These sounds are constant except when the “walk” interval indicator sound, which temporarily replaces it. If you hear the pushbutton locator, you should assume it’s not safe to cross the road.
  • Tactile arrows: Tactile arrows are used to help you realize the direction of the crosswalk. These arrows are typically found on the pushbutton or near the housing and are installed to line up with the crosswalk lines.
  • Walk indicators: Walk indicators, or audible walk indicators, signal when it’s time to cross the street. This happens when the visual “walk” sign is on and typically occurs as rapid ticking or beeping sounds. Some walk indicators also use speech messages.
  • Vibrations: Vibration happens when the “walk” sign is on and causes the pushbutton or pushbutton housing to vibrate. You must have your hand on the pushbutton or house to feel the vibrations.
  • Volume adjustment: APS devices now come with automatic volume adjustment to adjust to current environments. For example, if the traffic is louder than usual, the volume will adjust to match the traffic. If the traffic is quieter, the volume will also adjust to be quieter.
  • Beaconing: Not all APS devices have audible beaconing, but some do. To activate audible beaconing, you must press the pushbutton for longer than one second. You’ll hear a louder pushbutton locator tone if an APS device has audible beaconing.

The purpose of APS devices is to let low-vision individuals know when the “walk” interval begins, allowing low-vision people to prepare to cross an intersection. Aside from this, APS devices can provide directions to those who need them, which can be helpful when crossing multi-lane intersections or non-perpendicular intersections.

APS devices are meant to compliment traffic cues, not substitute them. APS devices inform you when the “walk” signal has replaced the “don’t walk” signal, but traffic can still be turning, crossing, and running red lights. 

When an APS unit is ordered, certain accessible pedestrian signals specifications will be needed to make sure that it is adequate to be installed where you want to install it. For example, you should specify the following criteria of what you want in an APS device: 

  • Audible tone or speech message when “walk” indication is on 
  • Intersection or street name speech message when “walk” indication is on
  • Extended button press requirements, such as pushbutton information message or louder “walk” indication tones 
  • Vibrating arrow requirements 
  • Wood or metal pole mount 
  • Required factory settings for specific features such as the “walk” indicator volume and locator tone volume 

These are only a few accessible pedestrian signal specifications you can specify for your device. 

Section 504 of the Americans with Disabilities Act, also known as Section 504 ADA, has specific requirements for treating disabled people. The section mentions that individuals with a qualifying disability cannot be excluded from or under activities or programs that receive federal financial assistance or are managed by executive agencies or the United States Postal Service. 

Simply put, the ADA requires that there is no discrimination in programs, services, or activities getting financial assistance. This means that accessibility for those with disabilities is a must, including incorporating accessible pedestrian signals. 

In the U.S., individuals may request that APS devices be installed at specific travel routes. Still, some states and municipalities have policies in place on APS installation. These policies may not be under the ADA’s requirements.