Rules of the Road

Those new signals on Lakeway are easy to figure out — just pay attention like a HAWK

The city of Bellingham is completing four new HAWK traffic signals along and around Lakeway Drive, and while there are already a few of them on Alabama Street, they may still be unfamiliar to a lot of drivers.
The city of Bellingham is completing four new HAWK traffic signals along and around Lakeway Drive, and while there are already a few of them on Alabama Street, they may still be unfamiliar to a lot of drivers. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

This week I’m attempting to exercise my psychic abilities by answering a question before it gets asked. Here’s the question I’m expecting to arrive in my in-box any day now: What am I supposed to do with the crazy new lights that just got installed on Lakeway Drive?

The city of Bellingham is completing four more HAWK traffic signals, located along and around Lakeway Drive, and while there are already a few of them in Bellingham (on Alabama Street) they may still be unfamiliar to a lot of drivers.

Or maybe you recall hearing something about the HAWKs a couple years ago when the first ones went in, but since you don’t drive on Alabama you either ignored or forgot about HAWK signals.

Either way, here’s a refresher on the HAWK traffic signals.

First of all, if you’re unfamiliar with the term “HAWK”, it is an acronym for “High Intensity Activated Crosswalk”.

On a side note, whoever came up with the acronym for these signals seems to have disregarded the basic protocol for acronym development (first letter of each word) in an effort to get a cooler acronym. “HAWK” has a pretty high coolness factor as acronyms go, but it’s a stretch to get “HAWK” from “High Intensity Activated Crosswalk”.

Here’s how they make it work: High intensity Activated crossWalK. Definitely getting creative with letter selection. But “HAWK” is a lot more memorable than “HIAC”.

Before we get into the details of driving through a HAWK signal, maybe we should consider why they’re even there in the first place. HAWK signals balance the need for pedestrian safety on high-traffic roads with commuter efficiency.

With a traditional green/yellow/red traffic signal, the red light stays illuminated even if there are no pedestrians in the crosswalk. In contrast, a HAWK signal is pedestrian activated and limits driver delay to the actual length of time it takes the walker to cross the street.

Pedestrian safety video from the City of Bellingham



Now, to understand HAWK signals, here’s how I break it down: The HAWKs are like two kinds of stop lights rolled into one traffic signal.

Separately, we’re familiar with both a solid red light and a flashing red light. Obviously, a solid red means that drivers are to stop and remain stopped for the duration of the solid red light. A flashing red light is treated like a stop sign — come to a complete stop and proceed when clear.

In this case, clear of pedestrians (and cyclists – more on that in a moment). The HAWK signals put both kinds of red lights back-to-back.

As a law-abiding driver, just do what you’d normally do for each kind of red light and you’re set.

The HAWK at Lakeway and Grant also has a bike component. This is the first HAWK signal in Bellingham to provide bike accommodations. I point this out just to remind drivers that we should be aware of both pedestrians and cyclists utilizing the HAWK signals.

As much as I think HAWK signals are a great solution, I have to admit that they are a lot to take in the first time you approach one. You’ve got a new light configuration, new signs, more blinking lights, and all in a location that a week ago you could drive straight through (being prepared to stop for pedestrians and cyclists, of course).

Take your time and travel at a speed that allows your brain to take in all the information that’s being presented. That’s actually good advice for any driving situation.

Really though, once you see a HAWK in action you’ll realize it’s not that tricky. If you divide it into to its individual components, it’s just a dressed up version of solid red and flashing red lights. They’re a great tool for increasing traffic efficiency, as well as a bold visible reminder to watch for some of our most vulnerable road users, people walking and riding to their destinations.

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates 32 percent of all pedestrian fatalities occur between 8 pm and midnight. Here are a few simple tips to help keep yourself safe while walking near traffic.

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Doug Dahl, Target Zero Manager for the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force, answers questions about road laws, safe driving habits and general police practices every Monday. Ask him a question using our form. Target Zero is Washington’s vision to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030. For more traffic safety information visit TheWiseDrive.com.


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