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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Idaho

Blind activist feeling stuck at crosswalks

"Where do I go from here?" Ted Loman asks rhetorically at Cedar Street and Fifth Avenue in Sandpoint, where an audible crosswalk signal has been installed. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

SANDPOINT – Little daunts Ted Loman.

An industrial accident blinded him in 1989 at age 39, but Loman wasted no time finding a new career. He placed his gregarious personality in front of television cameras for 12 years as the host of a cable-access show on UFOs. He’s hitchhiked thousands of miles, mined gold in Mexico, tried marriage three times and last week swam from one end of Sandpoint’s Long Bridge to the other – 1.76 miles – passing more than 50 sighted swimmers along the way.

“I didn’t think it was a big deal,” Loman said a few days after the swim. “I knew if I started I would finish.”

With Loman’s intrepid nature, not much should hold him back. But Sandpoint’s streets do. Once he steps into a crosswalk, he’s not confident he’ll reach the other side, even though Sandpoint has several audible crosswalk signals at Loman’s request.

“They’re going to get someone killed,” he said about the special signals.

Sandpoint and Nampa are the only two Idaho cities with crosswalk signals that direct sight-impaired pedestrians with sound. Audible crosswalk signals are rare in the Inland Northwest. Spokane offers them at only one intersection – Mission and Pines. Boise is in the planning stages of installing audible signals, according to the state Commission for the Blind.

The signals are more common in western Washington. Lynnwood has about 90. But few cities show such enthusiasm for installing the devices that are supposed to increase pedestrian safety for people with vision problems. The signals typically are the result of requests and persistence by blind people, such as Loman.

But even the blind community is split on the effectiveness of audible signals. Cities like Sandpoint that help blind residents pursue the signals often face frustration instead of satisfaction. Audible signals are expensive, complicated, inconsistent in design and next to impossible to adjust to every user’s expectations.

“When Ted brought it up, we understood it was a necessity,” said Ray Miller, Sandpoint’s mayor. “They’re functioning now but not to his satisfaction. They’ll be tinkered with continually. We’re treading new water here.”

Loman settled in Sandpoint in 2002, but he was well acquainted with the area. His family had lived in North Idaho since 1942. After spending most of his life in California and Arizona with stints in Mexico, he was ready for the neighborliness and level of safety Sandpoint offered.

“It was time to come home,” Loman said. “I learned to ride horses and bikes here, dive, fish, swim from Warren Island to shore at 15.”

He moved with his wife, Melony Loman, into a house in which his grandparents once had lived and immediately discovered he was cut off from downtown. Busy U.S. 95 separates his neighborhood from the business section of town. Through Sandpoint, the highway borrows several streets, including Fifth, which is a block from the Lomans’ house.

Fifth is one-way for a few blocks, then traffic travels both directions. It’s a main thoroughfare for U.S. 95 traffic and for local drivers. Several intersections offer signals and crosswalks. Traffic is nearly always heavy.

“I was stuck on one side of town,” Loman said.

In his previous home in Tucson, Ariz., Loman had to cross a three-lane highway to get to a bus stop. He asked the city to install a crosswalk signal that tweets like a bird for visually impaired pedestrians. When it’s safe to cross, the signal tweets on both sides of the street and blind pedestrians walk toward the sound.

In Sandpoint, Loman headed to city hall and asked Miller for an audible crosswalk signal on Fifth. The city could do nothing by itself because U.S. 95’s use of Fifth puts the state Transportation Department in charge of the street. But the city did support Loman’s request to the state and asked him to join the local Pedestrian Advisory Committee, Miller said.

The Transportation Department was cool to Loman’s request. Loman was just one person asking for expensive equipment.

“Normally we would do something like this as part of a larger project. If we were going to install all new traffic signals, we would have considered doing it as part of that,” said Mike Porcelli, ITD district traffic engineer in Coeur d’Alene.

But the agency recognized that Loman is not the only person with sight problems in North Idaho. Statewide, 2,200 people are legally blind, and 40,000 more have severely impaired sight, said Angela Roan, administrator of Idaho’s Commission for the Blind. That means they can’t see to read or drive, she said. North Idaho’s numbers are increasing rapidly because the Panhandle’s senior population is mushrooming, she said.

Research told Porcelli that the blind community is divided on the need for audible signals.

“We believe that sometimes they’re dangerous,” said Paula Achter, president of Idaho’s chapter of the National Federation of the Blind. Her organization doesn’t support audible signals, but it won’t oppose them at dangerous, high-traffic intersections that need signals for everyone, she said.

Loman believes Fifth falls into the dangerous category. He pressed the Transportation Department, believing Porcelli was dragging his feet. But Porcelli was studying and researching. The department had never installed an audible crosswalk signal. No state standards existed.

Porcelli found that some signals chirp and tweet like birds. Some beep. Some speak. National surveys have shown that sometimes blind people confuse real birds with the signals. Some signals make sounds until the walk sign turns to don’t walk, often stranding blind pedestrians halfway across the street.

The Transportation Department finally ordered what Porcelli calls the Cadillac version for three busy Sandpoint intersections – First and Pine; Fifth and Cedar; and Fifth and Pine. The signals beep constantly to draw pedestrians to the push button for the crossing signal. When it’s safe to cross, a voice repeats a message such as “Cross Pine” until the sign changes.

The agency installed 12 audible signals at the three intersections. The project cost $15,000. Loman first asked for the signals in 2003. Porcelli said the work was finished last week.

Except the work most likely isn’t finished. For months, the department has adjusted decibel levels and repositioned push buttons. Loman said he still can’t hear the signals over the steady stream of trucks. Miller said people in homes and businesses around the intersections complain about the signals’ loud beeps. At one intersection, the push button was 40 feet from the crosswalk. Loman couldn’t find the crosswalk fast enough to cross during the safe period. Porcelli said the Transportation Department added a post closer to the crosswalk for the button.

Loman believes the agency could have avoided so many headaches by accepting his offer to help. It worked with Kody Van Dyk, Sandpoint’s public works director, instead. Van Dyk, who has no vision problems, is sympathetic to both sides.

“I believe ITD will try to make it work. I think they’re committed enough,” Van Dyk said.

While Loman vows to battle until the signals work to his satisfaction, Porcelli appreciates how much he’s learning from his Sandpoint experience.

“ITD needs to address this on a statewide basis,” he said. “There’s more to it than just installing. We need to come up with a procedure to figure out what should be installed. It’s something new for us.”

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