ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Since 2008, a lot of time and money has been spent in communities across Tampa Bay installing pedestrian-activated flashing crosswalks to improve safety.
But those flashing signals, and any plans to continue to install them, might soon fade away.
The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) issued a letter of termination in late December which turned back its previous approval of the signals, known as rectangular rapid flashing beacons, or RRFBs.
The signals were approved on an interim basis in 2008. But it was recently discovered the technology has since been patented.
"It's unbelievable," said Whit Blanton, director of Forward Pinellas, the county's metropolitan planning organization. "I was really stunned they would reverse what's a proven safety measure.”
Federal regulations prohibit the use of patented devices, according to the FHWA.
"It is against the public interest to encourage the exclusive use of proprietary products," FHWA spokesperson Neil Gaffney said in an email.
So what does that mean for the hundreds of such crosswalks across the Bay area and the hundreds of thousands of dollars spent to install them?
More than 120 RRFBs have been installed in St. Petersburg since 2008, according to Mike Frederick, the city's neighborhood transportation manager. The city had plans to install an additional 50 but it's unclear now if that will happen.
Tampa officials are planning to install more than 70 RRFBs, in addition to the nearly two dozen already in use.
While further installation work must stop, Jean Duncan, who oversees Tampa's transportation and stormwater services department, said she believes it's only temporary.
"We're hopeful the Federal Highway Administration can get this worked out," Duncan said. "It's too soon for us to retreat and do something else."
The good news is that existing installations with proper approvals may remain in place until replacements are necessary, according to FHWA.
While the RRFBs are not cheap — roughly $10,000 a piece — Blanton says they are proven to be working. "
In terms of their effectiveness, they are through the roof," he said. "We've seen rates from 85-90 percent compliance in motorists yielding or stopping for pedestrians entering the crosswalk."
Before the flashing crosswalks, less than five percent of motorists bothered to stop for pedestrians at a crosswalk, according to Blanton.
As for the patents in question, Rick Jones, CEO of Venice-based Stop Experts, holds two, which are featured on his company's website.
Jones declined to comment, only saying the situation is "extremely political."
Blanton worries drivers and pedestrians will be left extremely confused by the sudden need for a change.
He's looking at alternatives, like flashing lights installed in the road, but hopes the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) will provide guidance.
"You drive up and down Gulf Blvd. in St. Petersburg, you're on Bayshore in Safety Harbor, you see them and you're used to them, but any time you introduce inconsistencies into the process then we have a worry from a safety standpoint," he said. F
DOT issued the following statement in response to questions from 10News:
FDOT is currently collecting data and reviewing the termination of MUTCD Interim Approval 11 in coordination with FHWA. We will provide guidance for RRFB installations on State Roads. Installations on local roads should be addressed by the County or City with local jurisdiction for the associated road.
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