Within the past month, a new signal system was installed on White Bear Avenue at Margaret Street in St. Paul to make it easier and safer for bicyclists and pedestrians to cross the four-lane road.

It’s called the HAWK system, short for high-intensity activated crosswalk. The system resembles a traffic light, but it’s really a beacon attached to mast arms. The beacon head has two red lenses above a single yellow lens.

Unlike conventional traffic lights that give drivers a red, yellow or green light, the HAWK system remains dark until a bicyclist or pedestrian pushes a button to activate it. When the beacon is dark, motorists can proceed as normal. Once it is activated, drivers will see a single flashing yellow light, a warning that they should prepare to stop. When the beacon turns a solid red, drivers must stop. That is when pedestrians and bicyclists will see a “Walk” sign indicating that it should be safe to cross.

Motorists will see flashing red lights at the end of the cycle, which indicates that the time for pedestrians to cross is running out. When the beacon is in the flashing red mode, drivers can treat it like a stop sign, meaning they must come to a complete stop, look both ways, then proceed if the crosswalk is clear.

A few other HAWK systems are operating around the metro area in places such as Forest Lake, Coon Rapids and Dakota County, but they are at mid-block crossings. The one at Margaret Street is different in that it is at an intersection. Drivers are still getting used to it, said Jerry Auge, a construction engineer with Ramsey County Public Works.

“There is a bit of a learning curve going on,” he said. “Pedestrians and bicyclists should not let down their guard and should make sure those cars are stopping.

“Motorists should be aware of their surroundings. The light is a warning to motorists for the potential that pedestrians or bicyclists might be present.”

Of course, the signal systems only work when pedestrians use them properly and motorists obey them.

Can we hit jaywalkers? No

Drive reader Irving is frustrated with pedestrians who don’t cross the street at intersections or in marked crosswalks.

“The other afternoon I was driving on 4th Street between 3rd and 4th avenues when a man walked out into the street and ambled across the street, meaning he walked slowly and deliberately, forcing me to stop in the middle of the block so I wouldn’t hit him,” he said in an e-mail. “My question is, can I legally hit him since he is breaking the law by jaywalking and forcing me to come to a stop in the middle of a block, not only endangering me but anyone behind me who also is forced to stop?”

Well, Irving, as frustrating as that might be, no, you can’t intentionally hit a person illegally crossing the street in midblock, said officer Corey Schmidt of the Minneapolis Police Department. That would be a far worse crime.

For the record, jaywalking is not a term found in state statutes or in any Minneapolis city ordinance. But there is a city ordinance that makes it illegal to interfere with vehicular traffic, including crossing in the middle of the street or when traffic has the right of way. State statutes say people who cross at places other than intersections or in crosswalks shall yield to vehicles.

“Practicing safe, heads-up driving and being a responsible pedestrian is the way to prevent somebody from being hurt or killed,” Schmidt said.


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