March 26, 2020
Responding to a tragic, December 22, 2019 accident in Satellite Beach that took the life of a 12-yr-old girl, the Florida House passed the Sophia Nelson Pedestrian Safety Act by an 118-1 vote on March 9, 2020. Sophia was killed when she was struck by an automobile while crossing State Road A1A in a crosswalk that was outfitted with flashing yellow lights. Before entering the crosswalk, Sophia pushed a button, activating the flashing yellow lights. An 83-year-old motorist ran through the crosswalk, disregarding the lights.
The flashing yellow lights, known in the transportation industry as “rectangular rapid flashing beacons” have been popping up in areas with high pedestrian traffic in municipalities throughout Florida. The yellow beacons are typically used in mid-block locations where people tend to cross the street illegally, even though an intersection is nearby. The beacons are activated when the pedestrian pushes a button at the crosswalk. Unlike a red light at an intersection crosswalk that requires a motorist to remain stopped until the light changes, the flashing yellow lights only require a motorist to stop while the pedestrian is in the crosswalk. In this way, the yellow lights are designed to protect pedestrians while not being overly disruptive to flow of vehicle traffic.
Unfortunately, the yellow lights provide a false sense of security to pedestrians and are a source of confusion to motorists, occasionally with tragic results. Florida law has long required motorists to come to a stop when approaching a crosswalk while a pedestrian is crossing. However, some motorists interpret the yellow flashing lights as an indication that they do not need to stop. A survey in Pinellas County showed that 85 to 90 percent of motorists complied with the yellow flashing lights and came to a stop when pedestrians were present. Pinellas County officials touted this as proof of success of the lights which can cost $10,000 apiece to install. In our opinion, the 10 to 15% non-compliance rate represents an unreasonable and unacceptable danger.
The legislation passed by the House would only allow flashing yellow lights at pedestrian crosswalks on two-lane roads with speed limits up to 35 mph. For larger intersections, like the four-lane, 45 mph section of SR A1A where Sophia was killed, The Florida Department of Transportation would be required to request authorization from the federal government to replace the yellow lights with red lights. The legislation would require all flashing yellow lights at these intersections to be removed within 4 years. The bill will now be considered by the Florida Senate and, if passed by the Senate, will go to Governor DeSantis for his approval.
The bill is a good step but, in our opinion, it doesn’t go far enough. These flashing yellow lights are confusing to motorists and, as a result, dangerous to pedestrians at all intersections. The 10 to 15% non-compliance rate in the Pinellas survey is alarming. For the sake of pedestrian safety and to avoid additional tragedies, we urge the State to ban flashing yellow signals at all crosswalks.