MIAMI – Remember Frogger? Those familiar with the arcade game know the objective is to get the little green frog from the bottom of the screen to the top safely. It's a task that requires precision and focus.
To get the frog across requires dodging and avoiding a never-ending flow of obstacles that move at varying speeds across the screen. It's a hazardous hop and not all of the frogs make it home.
Justin Speers said that for him crossing Biscayne Boulevard in Miami is a lot like playing Frogger. He nervously crosses the four-lane road between 29th and 32nd streets three to four times a day.
"It's definitely a hazard, to say the least," Speers said.
A pedestrian-activated yellow signal that warns drivers on Biscayne Boulevard to be prepared to stop at 16 crosswalks is equipped with flashing lights and audio alerts, between 13th and 79th streets, in Miami's busy downtown, Edgewater, Midtown and Upper East Side neighborhoods. But residents in the area told the Local 10 News' Leave it to Layron team that many of them aren't working.
The U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration refers to the technology as the Rapid Rectangular Flashing Beacons (RRFB), which officials say were designed to "increasing driver awareness" in order to prevent the type of "potential pedestrian conflicts" that caused 14,340 pedestrian fatalities and 193,000 pedestrian injuries nationwide from 2004 to 2006.
There was a malfunction reported at 32nd Street that could be deadly for pedestrians who are visually impaired. Although the flashing lights weren't working, the button was activating an audio message that falsely informed pedestrians who are visually impaired that drivers' were aware of their presence.
The audio alert in English and Spanish said, "Yellow lights are flashing!" But the lights were not flashing.
At the crosswalk on 29th Street, the flashing lights were working, but only when the pedestrian was activating them on the western sidewalk -- not on the eastern sidewalk. There was no audio announcement.
"It's definitely something that needs to be taken care of," Speers said.
According to DOT's Federal Highway Administration the cost of purchasing and installing two units on either side of a street ranges from $10,000 to $15,000. This includes the solar panels to power the units, pad lighting, signage, push buttons with audio instructions and other features.
The Miami--Dade County Transportation and Public Works Department is supposed to maintain the RRFBs. An official told the Local 10 News' Leave it to Layron team that many of the RRFBs were damaged during Hurricane Irma seven months ago, and others "failed subsequently over time because of water intrusion."
"The County has repaired a large number of these RRFBs," Miami-Dade County officials said in a statement. "However, supply of equipment and materials for these devices has been exhausted."
The trouble with the RRFBs started way before Hurricane Irma when a Florida businessman claimed to have invented the RRFBs. In a 2016 patent-infringement lawsuit in U.S. District Court against a Canada-based company called Intelligent Traffic Equipment Marketing Ltd., the businessman claimed the Canadian company was doing business with "pirated" copies in Florida.
The Federal Highway Administration issued a letter of termination on Dec. 21 rescinding its July 16, 2008 interim approval of RRFBs, after they were tested in Florida. The approval was temporary because the RRFBs weren't approved under the federal Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices for Streets and Highways, which prohibits the use of patented devices.
"The County’s effort to repair and/or replace these units was halted when the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) withdrew the approval for the use of these devices," the county's statement said.
The County and the Florida Department of Transportation were working on alternatives to replace the malfunctioning units.
"The FHWA has reinstated the ability to use these devices and we have restarted procurement efforts for the repair/replacement of the RRFBs," the county's statement said.
As of Friday afternoon, repairs will have to be made at seven of the 16 crosswalks along the corridor. County officials also said that the time frame for procuring the parts required to repair the RRFBs is eight to 12 weeks.
Also concerning is that even if the RRFBs aren't working, drivers are required by law to stop, or yield to pedestrians in the crosswalks. Nubia Palma shares Speers' fears. She regularly crosses Biscayne Boulevard at 32nd Street to get to work. Most recently, she noticed the flashing lights that are affixed to the signs were not working.
"[Drivers] don't see you. You step out on the street, they don't see the lights," Palma said. "Then yeah, they're going to hit you."
There may be issues with other RRFBs in South Florida. Miami-Dade County officials ask residents to call 311 to report malfunctions so that technicians can be dispatched to repair them.
Here is the statement by Miami-Dade County:
The County has repaired a large number of these RRFBs; however, supply of equipment and materials for these devices has been exhausted. More critically, the County’s effort to repair and/or replace these units was halted when the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) withdrew the approval for the use of these devices. The County and the Florida Department of Transportation were working on alternatives to replace the malfunctioning units; however, the FHWA has reinstated the ability to use these devices and we have restarted procurement efforts for the repair/replacement of the RRFBs.”