Puffin joins pelican and zebra on road to safety

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The trouble with roads, for most motorists, is that pedestrians want to cross them. Yesterday saw the latest addition to the menagerie of road safety schemes inhabiting the nation's roadsides: the puffin.

Replacing the pelican and complementing the zebra, the puffin (pedestrian user-friendly intelligent) crossing or walkway will see legislation laid before Parliament on Monday to allow the "clever" system to be laid across the nation's highways.

The Government earlier this week made it clear that "more intelligent" systems would help it set an ambitious target of reducing road deaths by the year 2010. It is already well on the way to reducing fatalities by one-third by the turn of the decade. Ministers point out that the Netherlands is trialing systems that automatically stop cars, with electronic brakes, from exceeding urban speed limits, and that Sweden has a "zero death" target for its roads.

The hi-tech puffins, which have been tried out at more than 60 sites across the country, use detectors to monitor the progress of pedestrians across the road. If more time is required for the pedestrian to cross, the red traffic-light signal is extended. Puffins will also solve a common complaint made about pelican crossings; above-ground sensors detect if the pedestrian moves away or crosses before being signalled and cancel the red signal request so that motorists are not stopped unnecessarily. Puffin crossings also do not have flashing lights but show either a steady red or a steady green.

It may seem a small step, but a close look at the road fatality figures suggests otherwise. More than 4,200 people were either killed or injured on road crossings and a further 4,000 were hit within 50 metres of a pedestrian walkway last year.

The origins of such life-saving measures have their roots in Roman times. The earliest example of a pedestrian crossing was the use of stone slabs in Pompeii to save citizens from rushing into the paths of chariots and recklessly driven carts.

The first pedestrian crossings in Britain were implemented in London in the late-Twenties. Consisting of little more than a series of red, yellow or white diagonal strips, they were not considered a success. The real breakthrough came with the now familiar Belisha beacon (above) a decade later, whose flashing amber globes were named after the Labour minister of transport, Leslie Hore-Belisha.

The success of the Belisha beacon almost proved to be its downfall. By the end of the Forties, the nation's motorists encountered the crossings so regularly they no longer stopped to let pedestrians pass. The government acted and cut the number of crossings from 30,000 to 10,000.

Other schemes have not been so successful. In 1962, the panda crossing made its appearance on Britain's streets. Its distinctive black and white post was easily recognisable, but the crossings complex signalling meant that motorists simply ignored its instructions. Twelve months later the panda was extinct. Today's most popular pedestrian walkway is the pelican crossing, introduced in the early Seventies, which, the Department of Transport said, "had shown a substantial reduction in casualties".

Baroness Hayman, the roads minister, said of the puffin crossings: "[They] are an excellent example of how new technology can be used to deliver significant benefits to both pedestrians and motorists alike."