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When driving along Sheridan, watch for new HAWK beacon

A new kind of traffic signal was switched on Friday morning on Sheridan Drive in the Town of Tonawanda – one of the busiest roads in the county – and it’s not like anything motorists, cyclists or pedestrians have ever seen in our region.

This traffic control device can’t be found on any other state road. It doesn’t have a green light. In fact, it has two red lights and is dark until activated.

It’s called a HAWK. That’s short for high-intensity activated crosswalk beacon, and its purpose is to allow users of the new Tonawanda Rails to Trails path to safely cross the seven lanes of busy Sheridan, which carries more than 30,000 vehicles daily.

The 4-mile trail, which cuts a diagonal line across the heart of the town’s residential core and runs along an old railroad bed, isn’t officially open. But cyclists, in-line skaters, runners and walkers already are using it in a steady stream.

There will be a learning curve for motorists and trail users alike with the new crossing signal, police and transportation officials agree.

“It kind of stands out like a sore thumb,” said Lt. Nick Bado of the town Police Department. “It’s something no one’s ever seen before, so people are concerned about compliance: Are people going to know what to do and stop? Or are pedestrians going to be at more of a risk using it?”

Deb Wiltrout, a bicyclist riding on the trail this week, harbors some of those concerns.

“I really think it’s incumbent upon people using the path to exercise care and caution,” she said at the crossing as traffic whizzed by. “You’re not going to compete against a car and win, that’s for sure.”

Improved safety

Although new to New York, HAWKs are used in states throughout the country and have been shown to improve safety for pedestrians at midblock crossings.

“It’s done in other parts of the country,” said Town Supervisor Joseph H. Emminger. “It’s done successfully and there’s no reason why it can’t be done in the Town of Tonawanda. This is a great thing we have here with our Rails to Trails.”

A 2010 study by the Federal Highway Administration looked at the safety effectiveness of HAWK devices in Tucson, Ariz., where the pedestrian crossing beacon was first developed in the late 1990s.

The study found a 29 percent reduction in total crashes and a 69 percent reduction in pedestrian crashes at 21 intersections after HAWKs were installed.

The HAWK on Sheridan is located between Logan and Vicksburg avenues, near what Town Engineer Jim Jones has dubbed “the holy trinity of calories” – Ted’s Hot Dogs, Paula’s Donuts and Anderson’s Frozen Custard.

Traffic engineers struggled with how to handle the crossing near the halfway point in the 4-mile trail before settling on a HAWK as the best option.

The first indicator for motorists traveling east or west on Sheridan is a bright yellow sign on the roadside 400 feet from the crosswalk warning that they’re approaching a bicyclist and pedestrian crossing. There’s another yellow sign at the HAWK, with an arrow directing motorists’ attention down to the crosswalk.

Overhead, there’s a beacon above each travel lane in both directions, along with a sign warning motorists to stop on red.

The beacon consists of two red lenses above a single yellow lens. The lack of a green lens is one aspect of the HAWK that has generated some confusion.

“People are used to red, yellow, green and there’s no green on this one,” said Elizabeth Carey, public and government affairs manager for AAA Western and Central New York. “So it is a little confusing.”

When a pedestrian activates the beacon by pushing a button, the beacon goes through a cycle of dark, flashing yellow, steady yellow, steady red, flashing red then back to dark. What to do during the flashing red portion also seems to be creating some confusion.

“I don’t know that the motorists are going to understand what a flashing red is,” said Wiltrout. Flashing red means motorists may proceed after stopping and ensuring the crosswalk is clear, according to the state Department of Transportation, which maintains Sheridan.

“If you’re driving down the road and you see red, that means stop,” said Carey of the AAA, which is educating its members about the HAWK. “If you see flashing red you think, ‘Oh no, do I stop? Can I go?’ ”

Meanwhile, trail users see either a traditional orange “Don’t walk” hand or a white “Walk” figure.

Any trail users uncomfortable crossing Sheridan at the HAWK can cross instead at the nearest traditional traffic signal, which is at Belmont Avenue to the west, or simply turn around and go back, said Emminger.

But officials hope motorists will quickly become accustomed to the new device and pedestrians will feel comfortable making full use of the trail, which is expected to officially open early next month.

‘Safety first’

Town police will be stepping up enforcement efforts. Officers will be out on Sheridan this summer looking for distracted drivers, especially in the vicinity of the new HAWK beacon. The Police Department received a Police Traffic Services grant from the Governor’s Traffic Safety Committee to conduct focused vehicle and traffic enforcement.

“A lot of doomsayers out there are waiting for the first tragic accident to happen,” said Bado. “We don’t anticipate that. Nothing’s perfect. However, these have proven (to be) reliable devices that I think are going to enhance the safety of people using a brand-new transportation system that’s going to make this town better.”

Even motorists who don’t travel on Sheridan may need to become familiar with the HAWK device. Another HAWK is planned in the town where the trail crosses Kenmore Avenue between Klauder Road and Fairfield Avenue, near the NOCO gas station. And Williamsville is getting a HAWK next year on Main Street in front of Amherst Town Hall.

“They’re going to be coming to a community near you in Western New York,” Emminger said. “We may be the first, but we’re certainly not going to be the last.”

Officials are optimistic that the learning curve will be short and everyone will abide by the rules.

Still, Wiltrout, the bicyclist, advocated using caution and common sense when crossing, including looking both ways, making eye contact with motorists and receiving and returning a wave.

“I don’t take anything for granted,” she said. “You can’t. I don’t want to die. Not yet. Safety first. That’s the bottom line.”