Tim Harlow
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A new signal system designed to make it safer for pedestrians to cross busy streets recently went up on Hwy. 55 in Rockford and it already has a nickname.

"We call it Blinky," said City Council Member Denise Willenbring.

That's because the technical name for the system — a rectangular rapid flashing beacon (RRFB)— doesn't easily roll off the tongue. But the hope is that motorists approaching Hwy. 55 and Maple Street will stop rolling when bright amber lights are flashing signaling a pedestrian is waiting to cross.

The intersection "has always been a dangerous spot," Willenbring said. "It's a four-lane highway and for any pedestrian trying to go across, it's scary. Cars don't slow down."

Minnesota Department of Transportation data show there have been three crashes at the intersection in the past 10 years — none fatal — and Willenbring wants to keep it that way.

She was part of a multi-agency push to secure a Safe Routes to School grant to pay for the $20,000-system that flashes in a wave-like pattern when pedestrians push a button. Wright County and Rockford Area Schools also were part of the effort.

The highway runs right through the heart Crow River, a town of 4,500 people, and scores of pedestrians cross it every day, including kids walking to the middle school.

"Pedestrians have rights," Willenbring said. "When the community and government agencies and municipalities and schools work together, you can have a safer environment."

Studies by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) show the solar-powered rectangular signs and flashing lights reduce crashes in crosswalks involving pedestrians by 47%. They also have shown that motorists'yielding rates run as high as 98%.

Here, a University of Minnesota/MnDOT study in May 2020 showed driver yielding rates between 60% and 80%, depending on the number of vehicle lanes the pedestrian is crossing, said Mark Wagner, a MnDOT assistant state traffic safety engineer.

"They definitely increase pedestrian safety," he said..

Minnesota has 243 of the crossing systems, which appear primarily on city and county roads, making the one in Rockford somewhat of an anomaly, Wagner said. But they could become more common, even on state highways, when they gain full approval from the FHWA. The Feds have deemed them a proven safety countermeasure, but so far have only given them interim status.

"MnDOT supports their use and has started to look into where we would want to install and maintain them," Wagner said.

Local agencies may use their own money to install RRFBs on state highways if they get a permit from MnDOT.

To augment the Maple Street flasher, Willenbring said the city in the spring hopes to recruit volunteers to work as crossing guards.

She also hopes there will be at least a couple more installed around Rockford, namely on Wright County Road 33 and Hennepin County Road 50.