WMU News

Research focuses on pedestrian safety of blind and visually impaired

July 14, 2000

KALAMAZOO -- A $4 million, five-year federal grant to a research project based at Western Michigan University will fund a multidisciplinary effort aimed at finding solutions to mobility challenges facing people who are blind and visually impaired--challenges that are cropping up more and more in today's complex pedestrian environments.

The project, titled "Blind Pedestrians' Access to Complex Intersections," is being funded by the National Eye Institute, a division of the National Institutes of Health. It was proposed and is being coordinated by WMU's Department of Blind Rehabilitation and its College of Health and Human Services. The effort pairs WMU researchers with teams of engineers, orientation and mobility instructors, highway safety researchers and experimental psychologists at four partner institutions--Boston College, Vanderbilt University, the Maryland School for the Blind, and the University of North Carolina's Highway Safety Research Center.

The total grant amount is $4,047,834, which will be awarded over the five-year period. The first year's award is expected to be $850,037. Grant funds will be shared among the participating institutions.

"This is a very substantial award and a very exciting opportunity for us," says Dr. Richard Long, principal research associate in WMU's Department of Blind Rehabilitation and director of the project. "The size and scope of the partnership and the substantial expertise of our collaborators will allow us to make significant progress in improving the pedestrian environment for persons who are blind and visually impaired."

Also playing key roles in the research effort will be Dr. David Guth and Dr. Paul Ponchillia, both professors of blind rehabilitation, and Dr. John W. Gesink, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering.

"Probably the greatest strength of this project is that it involves a multidisciplinary approach," says Dr. William Wiener, chairperson of WMU's Department of Blind Rehabilitation. "It is not just one department at Western Michigan University. It is a team of departments at a number of universities all working together.

"Through collaboration, the universities can do much more than on their own," Wiener says, "and the institutions involved are leading the way in their respective fields of expertise." For example, Wiener says the Highway Safety Research Center at the University of North Carolina is among the top research centers for highway safety in the United States.

The institutions involved will bring their combined resources to bear on issues of increasing concern to blind individuals, orientation and mobility instructors, and transportation officials. For example, the increasing sophistication of traffic control devices and intersection designs is making city streets more challenging and potentially more risky for some people with visual impairments.

"The pedestrian travel environment has been getting much more complex in recent years," Wiener says. "Traffic signals used to be timed, so that you always had 25 or 30 seconds to complete a street crossing. Those fixed-timed signals are going the way of the dinosaur."

Especially in areas with heavy traffic where it is important to keep vehicles moving, traffic engineers have installed signals activated by vehicle sensors. The signals change only when vehicles are present at the cross street, and the signal remains green only long enough to allow vehicles on the cross street to proceed.

"If there is only one vehicle, that could be six or seven seconds," Wiener says. "Pedestrians begin to cross the street and, by the time they are in the middle, the signal changes and traffic on the street they are crossing begins to move."

To get around this problem, traffic engineers have installed pedestrian call buttons at many of these intersections. When pushed, these buttons lengthen the crossing interval.

But how does a person who is blind locate the button?

In some cases, a device in the button emits a locator tone that helps pedestrians find it. Another solution is a Talking Signs system, a transmitter and receiver that not only tells the pedestrian where the button is located, but also the name of the street and when the signal has changed. Another device emits a sound on the opposite side of the street when the signal has changed, which may help visually impaired pedestrians hone in on the signal and make a straight crossing.

"We're going to be experimenting with all of those systems and working to improve them," Wiener says.

In addition to vehicle-activated signals, other challenges abound in the increasingly complex traffic landscape, say Wiener and Long. These include intersections of more than two roads and traffic circles or roundabout intersections, some of which may be particularly challenging for people with visual impairments to negotiate safely.

"The environment is changing in ways that are not always friendly to people who are blind," Long says. "So we proposed a bioengineering research partnership to identify problems and to address them from a multi-disciplinary perspective. The solutions to these problems might be innovations in transportation engineering, they might involve improving orientation and mobility instruction, or they might involve some combination of the two."

An example of such a combination is a gyroscope-based training device designed by Gesink and Guth. The device, worn by the user, provides precise verbal feedback about an individual's trajectory while he or she is walking. It shows promise as a training tool for improving blind people's ability to walk in a straight line.

Walking straight is particularly important when crossing a street. When using a long cane, people with blindness usually find it easy to walk a straight path using auditory and tactile cues, such as feeling the sidewalk edge. But when crossing a street, cues about one's trajectory may be limited or absent. As a result, veering into the intersection is more likely to occur.

The grant includes funds for engineering development and field testing of the "anti-veering training device," a prototype of which was recently patented by WMU.

"We have the opportunity to sort out what technology has a chance of really doing," Gesink says. "We can explore technological applications that have a chance of truly being used by individuals with visual disabilities."

In addition to further development and testing of the anti-veering training device, the WMU team will investigate several other issues, such as street crossing behavior at roundabout intersections.

Teams at partner institutions will collaborate on most of the projects. The University of North Carolina's Highway Safety Research team will provide transportation engineering support to other teams and will take the lead in dissemination activities.

The Boston College team will investigate characteristics of accessible pedestrian signals with the goal of developing more useful signal systems. The Vanderbilt team also will work to develop more useful pedestrian signals and will conduct basic acoustics research about the perception of moving sound sources related to street crossings.

The Maryland School for the Blind has expertise in mobility by persons with low vision and will conduct research on eye-gaze strategies and mental effort and attention during street crossings.

Media contact: Mark Schwerin, 616 387-8400, mark.schwerin@wmich.edu

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