Imagine you’re driving down West Avenue in Miami Beach when you come upon a highlighter-yellow traffic sign in a crosswalk.
The sign is waist-high and rectangular — about a foot wide and three feet tall. It has a picture of a stop sign, followed by the word “for” and then a picture of a person who appears to be walking.
What do you do?
A. Treat it as a stop sign, and come to a full stop.
B. Stop completely only if there is a pedestrian in the crosswalk.
C. Barrel through the crosswalk; the sign is only there to warn pedestrians to be careful while trying to cross the street.
The correct answer is B. Any other answers may land you a traffic ticket.
But take just a few minutes to observe the cars, trucks, and motorcycles making their way down West Avenue, and it becomes apparent: Many Miami Beach drivers are confused about what the signs mean.
You’ll see pedestrians waiting tentatively on either side of the crosswalk, looking for a break in traffic before they start walking. Other times, they play a human version of the video arcade game Frogger, starting to cross the street only to get caught in the middle while cars zoom by in either direction.
Other times, cars stop at every sign — regardless of whether there’s a person in the crosswalk — and road rage ensues as the drivers behind the stopped car honk their horns and wave their fingers (You know which finger we mean).
The crosswalk signs have actually been up for years, thanks to the work of the West Avenue Corridor Neighborhood Association. And for a long time, the signs helped produce harmony between motorists and walkers in the pedestrian-friendly neighborhood.
“Since I put up the signs, it’s been day and night,” said Miami Beach Police Capt. Mark Causey. “I haven’t had a single pedestrian hit, since I can remember.”
But things have changed. Now, there are many more cars driving through the neighborhood than ever before, because of construction on parallel Alton Road. A main South Beach thoroughfare, Alton has been partially shut down since November for extensive repairs and underground work. The closure forced traffic to be rerouted to West Avenue.
Once a quiet residential street, West Avenue has now become like a highway, residents say.
“It was much quieter and slower pace. … This is supposed to be more neighborhood-style,” said 27-year old Jessica Landwersiek, a bartender who lives on West Avenue.
Said 29-year-old business owner Kristyn Putman: “This street has become really angry.”
Miami Beach Police Sgt. Bobby Hernandez said that cars are supposed to stop for pedestrians in crosswalks even without the signs. But the signs make the crosswalks more noticeable and help make drivers aware of the law.
“If it’s saving lives and preventing accidents, then it’s a good thing,” he said.
The same signs can be found scattered around the city — the majority are in South Beach, such as south of Fifth Street on Alton Road. But as more drivers suddenly encounter them along West Avenue, some say the result has been confusion and chaos.
“It’s an education process,” said West Avenue Neighborhood Association President Christine Florez. “They are a definite improvement, and they do make it easier for people to cross … but overall I would say there is still a long way to go.”
Part of the issue may be that some motorists have never seen the traffic signs before, so they’re unsure of what to do. Even though they may not be as common as other signs, the pedestrian signs are approved by the Federal Highway Administration’s Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, which sets national standards for traffic signals. Florida follows the national standard as a matter of state law.
Visiting from Boston, Sarah Nason and Sam Alkhoury parked along West Avenue one afternoon. They said Massachusetts has a more pedestrian-friendly culture, and the traffic signs along West Avenue are actually common back home.
“It means if there’s a pedestrian, you stop and let them cross. It’s not a stop sign. Keep moving,” Nason said. “I think everyone around here, they don’t know how to drive.”
Mark Gold is the CEO and founder of The Ticket Clinic, a law firm specializing in traffic-citation issues. He also happens to be a Miami Beach resident with first-hand experience of the “nightmare” that West Avenue has become since traffic has been rerouted there and the crosswalk signs went up.
“I know it’s confusing. People see the stop sign and they think they have to stop no matter what,” Gold said. “The instruction is: It’s not a stop sign. You don’t have to stop unless the pedestrian is already in the crosswalk, is stepping into it, or is approaching so closely that basically they’re in harm’s way if you don’t stop.”
Pedestrians who walk the avenue regularly say the bigger problem is not that cars stop when they shouldn’t. Quite the opposite.
Ted Rosenberger tried to cross the street on a recent morning, only to get caught in the middle of traffic moving in opposite directions on either side of him. He peeked his head out hoping a driver would notice him, and stop.
Once Rosenberger was safely on the other side, he said: “You almost have to put yourself at risk in order for them to realize: ‘Oh yeah. They’re there.’ ”
Miami Beach police enforce the law with officers in plainclothes who try to cross the streets, residents said. If a car doesn’t stop, the officer blows a whistle to alert a motorcycle cop, who then stops the car and writes a ticket.
Putman said that when she’s driving along West Avenue, “I always stop. Because I’ve seen other people get tickets.”
There are other measures planned to give relief to walkers of West Avenue.
Already, the speed limit on the street was reduced to 25 mph. Heather Leslie, a spokeswoman for the Alton Road project, also said a temporary traffic light will be installed at 14th Street. There will also be activated crosswalks, where the pedestrian hits a button and lights flash to warn drivers that someone is trying to cross the street. Those will be installed at 12th and Ninth streets.
“It’s a balance to move cars and make sure that we’re keeping not only pedestrians but also bicyclists safe. West Avenue is a very dynamic community, with a lot of people doing their day-to-day errands and walking around,” Leslie said.
Construction on Alton Road is expected to be completed in summer 2015.