Flashing beacons are frequently requested by communities in
the belief that they will reduce vehicle speeds and/or improve
the safety of a location. Unfortunately, this is not necessarily
the case. The following discussion of flashing beacons is offered
in the interest of broader public understanding of what beacons
can and can not do, and what factors must be considered before
they are installed or allowed to remain in operation.
TYPES OF BEACONS
There are basically two types of beacons:
Sign beacons - These beacons are mounted on a STOP
sign, speed limit sign, or warning sign to supplement the
sign message. The beacons call attention to an unusual intersection
Overhead beacons - These beacons are intended to be installed over a roadway
where a traffic study indicates the intersection has an unusual traffic or
The comments in this pamphlet apply to both types of beacons.
USE AND MISUSE OF BEACONS
Beacons serve a useful purpose where the flashing light is
used to alert drivers of UNUSUAL
CONDITIONS that are not readily apparent, such as obstructions
in the roadway, uncommon roadway conditions, narrow bridges,
or unusual conditions hidden from the motorists' view. At
intersections, the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices
states: "Beacons are intended for use ... where traffic
or physical condition do not justify conventional traffic
signals but where high accident rates indicate a special hazard."
For any beacon to be effective, it MUST
COMMAND THE RESPECT OF THE MOTORING PUBLIC. In other
words, immediately after seeing the beacon, the driver must
CONSISTENTLY see an unusual
condition which is being singled out for attention. Furthermore,
the condition MUST be
viewed by the motorist as serious enough to justify having
When beacons are used improperly and installed at locations
where they are not warranted, they soon lose much of their
effectiveness. They simply CEASE
TO COMMAND THE RESPECT OF THE DRIVERS. After continually
being alerted to a condition which seldom, if ever, appears
unusual, drivers actually stop "seeing" the beacon.
When this happens, beacons which are truly needed may well
be disregarded by drivers who have become conditioned to believe
that beacons are just "window dressing." Because
of this normal human reaction, even one improper installation
greatly reduces the effectiveness of essential beacons.
In school zones beacons may also give pedestrians, children
and their parents a false sense of security. Quite often communities
request beacons in the belief that they will improve crossing
safety, rather than attempting to solve the underlying problems.
For example, there may be no established route to and from school,
no pedestrian safety program, or no adult crossing guards. Some
parents and school districts believe the entire responsibility
for crossing safety lies in the traffic control devices and
not in themselves or the children. It must be realized that
just because a beacon is in place, children will not automatically
be more visible to drivers and that choosing an appropriate
time to cross is the pedestrian's responsibility.
A common MISCONCEPTION
is that a beacon, when used alone or in conjunction with a
speed or warning sign, will slow down traffic. Drivers tend
to drive at a speed which they perceive to be safe based on
their surroundings, such as width of pavement, roadway features
(i.e. curves) and type and number of developments.
Before deciding to install a new beacon or remove an existing
beacon, an engineering study is conducted. The traffic engineering
study includes: reviewing the location; its accident history;
roadway features, such as type of pavement, number of lanes,
lane width; vehicle speeds; vehicle volumes; number of pedestrians
and school children; and sight restrictions.
When beacons are properly located, they serve a useful function.
When they are used improperly and installed at locations where
they are not warranted, they soon lose much, if not all, of
their effectiveness. More seriously, improper usage greatly
reduces the effectiveness of other beacons installed in areas
where there is a real need.
The Kansas Department of Transportation strives for standardization
of traffic control, thus meeting driver expectations. When drivers
see beacons at locations which do not have any unusual characteristics,
beacons begin to lose their effectiveness in the minds of drivers.
It is the Kansas Department of Transportation's intent that
when a driver encounters a traffic control device, he or she
will know what to expect because of previous encounters with