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NIH pumps additional $4.8 million into WMU-led study

Nov. 15, 2007

KALAMAZOO--The National Eye Institute, a division of the National Institutes of Health, has awarded Western Michigan University additional funding of more than $4.8 million to continue its study of approaches designed to ensure that complex intersections are accessible for people who are blind or visually impaired.

The bioengineering research project, titled "Blind Pedestrians' Access to Complex Intersections," is led by Dr. Richard Long, WMU professor of blindness and low vision studies and associate dean of the WMU College of Health and Human Services. The funding will allow WMU and its partner institutions--Boston College, Maryland School for the Blind, North Carolina State University and Vanderbilt University--to continue studying, for an additional five-year period, a broad range of issues that people with vision problems face in crossing streets safely and efficiently at complex intersections.

The award comes on top of the initial $4.1 million grant, also from the NEI, that started the research project in 2000.

"The pedestrian environment has gotten more challenging," Long says. "Roadways are bigger, roadways are wider, there are more vehicles. Traffic engineers tend to focus on moving vehicles quickly; they don't tend to focus as much on the fact that pedestrians and vehicles must share the roadway, and on using roadway designs and technologies that assist pedestrians with disabilities in crossing streets more safely. Pedestrians tend to get short shrift in the traffic environment and pedestrians with blindness are particularly challenged because evaluating traffic movement non-visually can be challenging in some situations."

Long and his fellow researchers have been both identifying problems and possible solutions to assist those with vision problems to safely negotiate the ever-changing traffic landscape. The project is, out of necessity, multi-disciplinary and integrates the expertise of mobility specialists, traffic engineers, psychologists and rehabilitation specialists.

"It's truly a multidisciplinary effort and that yields great strength to what we're able to do," Long says.

Researchers conducted roughly 25 studies between 2000 and 2007. After identifying problems with intersection access, they now are moving into the solutions-testing phase and are evaluating a range of options for solving mobility problems that sometimes occur at complex intersections such as traffic circles or roundabouts. These types of intersections can be particularly problematic for people with low or no vision. In regard to solutions, it may be that adding surface materials to the roadway that make noise when vehicles pass over them can provide additional information to blind pedestrians about the location and direction of travel of approaching vehicles. Another approach is to use video detection technology to detect vehicle presence and communicate that vehicle presence audibly to the individual who is blind and waiting to cross the street.

Another challenge for such pedestrians with blindness or low vision is the "quiet car" problem involving new, hybrid vehicles that run on batteries at low speeds. Hybrids make very little noise when operating on battery power, and people with vision problems sometimes have trouble discerning their presence. This problem may be important to pedestrians with typical sight as well, because the ways that sighted pedestrians use hearing to aid them in making street crossing decisions is not well understood.

Yet another problem involves the growing number of mid-block crosswalks between intersections and the expectation that crosswalks are accessible to all users as required by the Americans with Disabilities Act.

"How can a person who is blind identify that a mid-block crossing is there if there are no auditory cues present for that crossing point?" Long asks. "That's another problem we're interested in, is helping people identify where a crosswalks are located and getting aligned to cross. If you can't see, how do you face more or less directly toward the opposite curb? We think we have some low-tech solutions identified that can aid with alignment difficulties at complex intersections and at intersections that are unfamiliar to individuals who are blind."

Orientation and mobility instructors can teach people with low or no vision how to use traffic sounds and other cues to orient themselves. But in more complex intersections, those cues are difficult to use, and researchers are looking at adding features to the environment to help. For example, devices called accessible pedestrian signals can provide audible information to orient the pedestrian and tell them when the walk phase begins and how much time remains in the walk phase as they cross. When adding auditory information for pedestrians, engineers sometimes use simple tones and sometimes use devices that "speak" digitally and inform the user of the names of streets and other information. The increase of audible supplemental information at complex intersections has been an important contributor in aiding people who are blind in aligning themselves and crossing the intersection safely.

Long is being assisted in the project by a multi-disciplinary team of WMU professors, including Dr. David Guth, professor of blindness and low vision studies; Dr. Paul Ponchillia, professor emeritus of blindness and low vision studies; Dr. Robert Wall-Emerson, associate professor of blindness and low vision studies; Dr. John Gesink, chair of the electrical and computer engineering department; and Dr. Koorosh Naghshineh, professor of mechanical and aeronautical engineering.

It made sense for the NEI to choose WMU to oversee such a study, Long adds.

"We're the oldest and largest training ground in blindness and low vision studies in the world," Long says. "The profession, to some degree, started here, at least on the academic preparation side. So we're sort of a big duck in a very small puddle and we were able to parlay that capacity into this challenging research project grant."

Media contact: Mark Schwerin, (269) 387-8400, mark.schwerin@wmich.edu

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