Rules of the Road

What do flashing, solid red lights mean at those crossings on Alabama?

Vehicles stop for a pedestrian crossing Alabama Street at a HAWK signal on Friday, June 17, in Bellingham, Wash.
Vehicles stop for a pedestrian crossing Alabama Street at a HAWK signal on Friday, June 17, in Bellingham, Wash.

More education appears to be needed regarding the HAWKS on Alabama Street. Recently, two police officers in Bellingham patrol cars were observed traveling in opposite directions on Alabama. They both stopped at an activated HAWK and were each first in line in their respective lanes. Once the HAWK began flashing red and the pedestrians had cleared the crosswalk, the officers remained stopped until the HAWK entered the OFF mode. Should they not have proceeded once the crosswalk was clear and the HAWK was flashing red?

Clearly, if some of our local officers are unsure of how to proceed through HAWK signals, the message of navigating the HAWKs has not penetrated deep enough into the community. The city of Bellingham has some great HAWK-related resources on its website, but I’ll try another way of explaining it that helps me remember what to do at a HAWK.

First of all, if you’re unfamiliar with the term HAWK, it is an acronym for High Intensity Activated Crosswalk and a few of them have been installed recently on Alabama Street. 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.

Now, to understand HAWK signals, here is how I break it down: The HAWKs are like two kinds of stoplights 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. The HAWK signals put both kinds of red lights back to back. As a law-abiding driver, just do what you normally would do for each kind of red light and you’re set.

At first glance, the HAWK signals can be confusing because they’re new and apparently different. If you divide it into 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 to their destinations.

Road Rules is a regular column on road laws, safe driving habits and general police practices. Doug Dahl is the Target Zero Manager for the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force. Target Zero is Washington’s vision to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030. For more traffic safety information visit Ask a question.