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Make Waterloo Region’s Roundabouts Safer for Blind Pedestrians

Waterloo Region’s roundabouts are formidable barriers for the thousands of local residents who are blind or visually impaired. Opinion
Waterloo Region Record|

Gord Cummer, seen with his spouse Joanne, has about five per cent vision in one eye, and goes for walks everyday in his Waterloo neighbourhood, but says he won’t go anywhere near roundabouts, because they’re simply too difficult for a blind person to navigate.

For all the people with 20-20 vision who find it challenging to navigate one of Waterloo Region’s roundabouts, just imagine what it’s like for a pedestrian who’s blind.

If you think it’s hard to weave your car into those seemingly endless lines of swirling vehicles or walk across a busy traffic circle, think how daunting, even terrifying, a task it is for someone who can’t see and is trying to do it alone, on foot.

There’s no way they can know by listening if all the cars have stopped and are waiting for them, unlike at a traditional intersection where traffic in one direction comes to a standstill.

Nor are there the square corners found at traditional intersections that make it easier for them to line themselves up with the curb and cross in a straight line, without veering into traffic.

Worst of all, there’s no way they can use eye contact or body language to communicate with drivers and let them know they want to cross. After all, they can’t see those drivers.

For all these reasons, Waterloo Region’s roundabouts are formidable barriers for the thousands of local residents who are blind or visually impaired. And it’s time for the regional government to knock these barriers down.

In general, roundabouts are great because they make life safer and more convenient for motorists. Study after study, however, has agreed roundabouts present real obstacles for the blind, says Robert Gaunt, executive director of the CNIB Foundation Ontario West.

That not only creates fear. It means the blind can find it impossible to cross a traffic circle. If that makes them less inclined to go out, it will make them feel more isolated and powerless.

Already, busy regional roads such as Franklin Boulevard and Ira Needles Boulevard have no traffic lights, only roundabouts, for many kilometres. If you’re blind, those roadways might as well be walls.

Yet not a single regional roundabout has ever been adapted to help the blind. And along with the more than 30 roundabouts already in this region, there are plans for more. The problem will only grow.

While the regional politicians and staff who first championed these traffic circles 15 years ago didn’t intend for this to happen, it has. However, now that people like Gaunt have indicated the status quo isn’t working for the blind, there is no excuse for inaction.

Yes, the regional government has consulted with the CNIB and the Grand River accessibility advisory committee on this issue. It should consult again.

In addition, it should earmark $200,000 in its next capital budget to build four pedestrian-activated crosswalks within 60 metres of four roundabouts to help people who are blind safely cross the road. Those crosswalks could be helpful for children, seniors and people who use wheelchairs, too. Consider it a pilot project.

The region is willing and rightly so to make sidewalks accessible for those with physical disabilities. It long ago installed audio devices on public transit buses that call out the stops, something riders with sight impairment had wanted.

That change followed an Ontario Human Rights Tribunal decision ordering municipalities to make public transit accessible in this way. The region should not ignore the distinct possibility that someone will complain to the human rights commission about our roundabouts.

And so it should do what’s right. It should act. The monetary investment we suggest to attempt a fix is modest. The gains in public safety and ensuring the dignity of all of this region’s citizens could easily be huge.

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