By Rich Pollack
In its never-ending battle to make crosswalks safer, Highland Beach is finally waving the flag.
But it’s not a white flag of surrender, it’s an orange one — actually many orange ones.
Beginning later this month, residents and visitors wanting to cross State Road A1A at the town’s south end can activate a flashing yellow light and then improve their visibility to motorists by waving a neon orange crosswalk flag.
“It’s kind of unique and fun,” said Town Manager Marshall Labadie. “If it works out we’ll roll it out throughout the town.”
Labadie said that along with the 24 new flags, which have Highland Beach’s logo on them, there will be a sign with instructions reminding pedestrians that they still must follow common-sense guidelines when crossing the road.
While the crosswalk flags may be new to coastal municipalities in Palm Beach County, they are not new to Florida. They’re used on the state’s west coast as well as in Fort Lauderdale and St. Augustine Beach.
The crosswalk in front of the St. Andrews Club in Gulf Stream also has flags, thanks to a suggestion from a club member.
In Fort Lauderdale, the flags are used on Las Olas Boulevard. In St. Augustine Beach, which shares much in common with Highland Beach, they’re used at eight locations along A1A.
“They have worked fabulously,” said Bill Jones, president of the St. Augustine Beach Civic Association, which first came up with the idea and $5,000 to get it off the ground.
Jones said the city was initially looking at putting in pedestrian-activated crosswalk lights but discovered they were cost-prohibitive. The flags, he said, were an inexpensive option.
“There were a number of people who were skeptical at first, but the community embraced it,” he said.
Jones said that St. Augustine Beach, like Highland Beach, has many residents and guests crossing A1A to get to the beach in the morning.
“Pretty soon there’s too many flags on one side and not enough flags on the other,” he said.
He said it’s not uncommon, however, for bicyclists and pedestrians to grab a few flags and cross A1A just to fill the boxes.
One problem the city encountered early on was that people tended to walk off with the nicely decorated flags.
“They look more rustic now,” he said.
While usage has waned a bit in St. Augustine Beach recently, sparking a public awareness campaign to encourage flag waving, Jones said there are no plans to jettison the concept.
“I would never get rid of the flags because a moving flag in someone’s hand might better catch the eye of a distracted driver,” he said.
In Highland Beach, the flags — which will be kept in holders attached to poles on both sides of the road — are just one part of a multi-step effort designed to improve crosswalk safety.
Although there have not been any serious injuries, Town Commission members and residents have cited several close calls where motorists failed to comply with state law and stop for pedestrians in the crosswalks.
In addition to the flags, Highland Beach is in the process of seeking state approval to install pedestrian-activated, flush-mounted LED crosswalk lights as well as solar-powered, pedestrian-activated flashing lights at each of its eight crosswalks.
Because the improvements are on a state road, the town must get the blessing of the Florida Department of Transportation before it can move ahead with the project. Labadie said he is hopeful the town will get a green light.
“We’re not asking for anything that hasn’t been approved before,” he said.
Once the town has approval, it will begin seeking bids for the materials and installation.
Labadie said FDOT has standards for what can be used on state roads to enhance safety based on the volume of traffic and, in this case, the number of pedestrians using crosswalks.
Because the crosswalks in Highland Beach don’t meet those standards, FDOT is reluctant to pay. However, agency officials are OK with the town’s paying for the job.
“They will allow us to go farther, but it’s on our dime,” Labadie said. Ú