Boulder is trying a new audible pedestrian signal that should make it easier for the visually impaired to safely cross the street, and the voice of the recorded message will be KBCO morning show host Bret Saunders.
The new signal will be installed later this spring at the crosswalk at 49th Street and Pearl Parkway, where many people with disabilities take the bus to the office of the Colorado Division of Vocational Rehabilitation and have to cross Pearl.
The previous generation of audible signals used beeps and clicks to alert blind people that the walk signal was on. However, many people found the sounds hard to distinguish and confusing, said Joe Paulson, Boulder transportation engineer for signals and lighting.
The federal government, which regulates crossing signals, now allows for recorded messages that guide visually impaired pedestrians, and the company that makes the crossing signals now allows for customized messages.
"We said, 'Okay, it's time to get off the fence and roll out this new technology,'" Paulson said.
And having decided to go with a recorded message, transportation officials wanted to make their message distinctive.
"We thought it would be fun to have a recognizable voice that really says Boulder," Paulson said.
The transportation department went back and forth between whether to ask Saunders or fellow KBCO DJ Ginger. Paulson said the tie was broken by research that shows the deeper male vocal registry is easier for people to hear over background noise.
Saunders is volunteering his services to record the message and said he was honored to be asked to be "part of Boulder's soundscape."
Saunders said his son has autism, and while his son can hear and see well, he has a sense of the way everyday activities can be more challenging for someone with a disability.
"This is a really easy, fun way to be involved in helping someone out in the community," he said. "I hope I can meet Boulder's standards."
Judy Neal, a Boulder resident and coordinator for the statewide Independent Living Council, has a visual impairment. She's not blind, but she can't see the other side of the street when she's crossing and relies on audible signals to cross more safely.
"I've been nearly led to my death by following another pedestrian," she said.
Neal said she used to travel a lot for work and found the beeps, chirps and clicks didn't seem to mean the same things in every city. The recorded messages, on the other hand, are hard to mistake.
"I remember how excited I was to hear it," she said.
Neal said any kind of audible signal helps people with visual impairments cross streets more safely, but the recorded messages would be an improvement.
She said she hopes the city works with residents with visual impairments to identify other locations where the message could be useful.
The audible signals cost $1,100, compared to less than $200 for a standard walk signal, Paulson said.Paulson said the city wants to be sure the signals are working as intended and helping blind pedestrians more than the previous technology.
"I would like to see them at as many crosswalks as possible, and this kind of thing often benefits people who are not blind as well," Neal said. "It's important to include people with visual impairments in the decision-making process and not make decisions in a vacuum."
Contact Camera Staff Writer Erica Meltzer at 303-473-1355 or firstname.lastname@example.org.