The crosswalks on Mendenhall Loop Road near Floyd Dryden Middle School have seen several crashes, fatalities and injuries in the past few years, including to children crossing.
In an attempt to lessen the danger to students, the state Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, with help from the middle school's site council, installed an experimental stoplight in front of the middle school. Monday was the light's first day during school hours in its five-year test period.
Seventh-grader Arlene Haube said Monday that crossing the road had felt busier and mores dangerous, "But now it's all chill."
Principal Tom Milliron had a more serious tone in a school newsletter after a student riding a bike was hit in October 2008. He called crossing Mendenhall Loop Road "a serious, life threatening activity" especially during the darker winter months, which contributes to "a mixing bowl for an extremely high risk recipe" during the morning rush.
"The potential for tragedy is truly increased exponentially when one considers that the most dangerous and life threatening activity of our children's day has become routine for both them and the drivers," he said.
The light is activated by pedestrians and called a high intensity activated crosswalk, or HAWK. It's the first of its kind in Alaska and is to be used in conjunction with crossing guards already in place for the half hour before and after school.
The signal consists of three lamps, two red lamps over a yellow lamp. When it's inactive, all the lamps are dark, and it looks "like a traffic light that's out of service," said David Epstein, regional traffic and safety engineer for Southeast Alaska.
When a pedestrian pushes the button to cross, a flashing yellow light turns on for five seconds, followed by a solid yellow light for four seconds, then red lights. At peak pedestrian hours, the red lights are solid for 12 seconds then flash for 17 more. The solid red light is shorter the rest of the day. And just like a regular light, yellow means slow down, solid red means stop, and blinking red means stop and, once clear, proceed.
There's also a 60-second wait time between crossing requests, to ensure the road doesn't become too congested. Timings may change depending on traffic and pedestrian flow in the next few weeks.
Juneau's was fully funded by a $320,000 Safe Routes to School grant, which is federal money, said Carolyn Morehouse, the light's project manager with the DOT&PF.
A standard traffic signal was undesirable because of congestion on the road and existing traffic signals within a half mile in both directions. Also, the department had already tried replacing 20 mph flashing beacons and fluorescent school advance signs, and installing illuminated pedestrian signs and new highway lighting, yet "complaints about drivers not yielding to students in the crosswalk have persisted especially during peak traffic," Morehouse said in the application.
In March, the FHA approved the signal for testing. It is also in use in Tucson, Ariz., and other communities across the Southwest. A 2006 Texas study gave them a 97 percent motorist compliance rating overall.
If the light shows improved safety, Morehouse said she anticipates more might be placed around Juneau, but not at more schools. With a 40 mph normal speed limit and a wide road in front of it, Floyd Dryden is "a unique situation," she said.
Contact Mary Catharine Martin at firstname.lastname@example.org or 523-2276.
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