Traffic Signals
Traffic Signals for Pedestrians

Pedestrians Traffic Signals: A Complete How-To for Pedestrian Lights

Updated Dec. 2, 2019

In addition to traffic control devices for drivers, many intersections have signals to manage pedestrian traffic. Intersections are high-risk areas for all road users, though they pose a significant danger to people seeking to cross the street. Pedestrian signal lights at an intersection crosswalk MUST be obeyed, as motorists will not be prepared for people to step out into the road under a “DON’T WALK” sign.

How to use pedestrian traffic lights

Traffic lights and pedestrian signals are usually coordinated, so that streams of cross traffic are halted while pedestrians use the crosswalk. However, this does not mean that you are completely safe while crossing at an intersection controlled by pedestrian signals, or that you can use the crosswalk without paying attention to the road.

There is always the chance that a motorist will ignore the rules and drive through a red light. Plus, vehicles turning into the street you are crossing may seek to drive over the crosswalk while you are occupying it. All pedestrians must look out for cars and cross the road with caution, even when pedestrian traffic lights indicate that it is safe to cross.

Pedestrian signal lights should be interpreted as follows.

  1. 1

    Steady “WALK” or a walking person symbol.
    In most states, the WALK signal used at pedestrian crossings is white. When this signal light is displayed, all pedestrians facing that signal may begin crossing the street. Pedestrians have right-of-way under a WALK signal but must still exercise caution when crossing the street.

  2. 2

    Flashing “WALK” or a walking person symbol.
    A flashing WALK signal indicates that the pedestrian crossing phase is nearing completion and a DON’T WALK sign will soon be displayed. Do not start crossing the street under a flashing WALK signal, as you may not have enough time to finish crossing safely. Some intersections use flashing DON’T WALK signals to indicate the same transitional period, while others do not use flashing signals at all.

  3. 3

    “DON’T WALK” or a flat hand symbol.
    These traffic lights are generally orange. When a DON’T WALK or flat palm symbol is active, pedestrians may not cross the street. Pedestrians facing this signal light must wait on the sidewalk for a WALK signal before proceeding.

Countdown traffic lights

Intersections with heavy pedestrian traffic often use countdown signal lights to accompany flashing WALK or DON’T WALK signals. When the WALK signal begins to flash, a countdown will begin that indicates how many seconds of the pedestrian crossing phase remain. The DON’T WALK or flat hand signal will appear as soon as the countdown signal reaches “0”.

If a countdown signal indicates that you only have a few seconds left to finish crossing the street, you may wish to walk a little faster to make sure you reach the opposite curb in time.

Audio signals

In busy urban or residential areas, you may encounter pedestrian lights which are accompanied by an audio signal, such as a high-pitched “beeping” sound. Audio signals are synchronized with visual signals, to assist blind and visually impaired pedestrians in crossing the street.

Pedestrian phases

Pedestrian phases are a unique type of crossing, sometimes known as “pedestrian scrambles”. At an intersection which uses pedestrian phases, a series of crosswalks allows pedestrians to move from one curb to any other curb at the intersection. This will include a long, diagonal crosswalk which cuts a path straight across the center of the main intersection.

During the “scramble” phase at these intersections, all crosswalks will display the WALK or walking person symbol at the same time, while all streams of traffic are stopped by a red light.

On-demand crosswalks

Traffic lights at on-demand crosswalks are partially controlled by pedestrians, rather than being dictated by traffic conditions or a pre-programmed cycle. This type of crosswalk helps to preserve optimum traffic flow through an intersection, as drivers will be halted less frequently unless there are pedestrians waiting to cross the road.

At an on-demand crossing, pedestrians must press a button which is posted by the curb to tell the traffic control system that they are waiting to use the crosswalk. This will either hasten the appearance of a WALK signal, extend the duration of a WALK signal, or both. Always check for an on-demand button when seeking to cross the street.

No pedestrian signals

At a controlled intersection where there are no pedestrian traffic lights, pedestrians must adhere to the same red, yellow and green traffic lights as motorists. Additional care must be used when crossing without pedestrian signal lights.

Uncontrolled intersections have no signal lights for drivers or pedestrians. Most states require motorists to yield or stop for pedestrians seeking to cross the street at marked and unmarked crosswalks. Keep in mind that a distracted driver may not see you waiting to cross the street and that not all drivers will follow this right-of-way rule. To cross safely, pedestrians cannot assume that drivers will stop or yield.

Pedestrians using a crosswalk at an uncontrolled intersection must either wait for a safe gap in traffic, or for a driver to stop fully and indicate that they may cross. In this latter situation, be sure to check for vehicles in all directions before stepping out into the street.

If possible, choose to cross at intersections which are controlled by pedestrian signal lights – it will always be the safer option!

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