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The Kendall Square traffic light that requires instructions

The strange new lights at the pedestrian crossing at Binney and Sixth streets.
The strange new lights at the pedestrian crossing at Binney and Sixth streets.(Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff)

CAMBRIDGE — It may be the most confusing traffic light you've ever seen. But Cambridge officials hope it will make things safer for pedestrians, while ensuring smooth sailing for drivers.

The "High-Intensity Activated crossWalK," or HAWK, signal installed by city officials outside Biogen Inc. is so complex it requires its own set of directions. Biogen workers handed fliers out Friday to prepare those who approach it.

"We are just educating people because it is such a new system," said Mike Baut, Biogen's safety manager. "It's a different lighting scheme, and people aren't used to it."

The system has been installed near the company on Binney Street, a two-way road of four lanes that cut through Cambridge's innovation sector.

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Drivers will see three clusters of three lights as they approach the intersection of Binney and Sixth streets.

At first, they will be all black. At that point, it's safe for drivers to proceed.

When a pedestrian activates the system, a single light will blink yellow on all three clusters before turning solid yellow, signaling drivers to prepare to stop.

Quickly, the two solid yellow lights will turn into two solid red lights displayed in each cluster. Drivers must stop.

Then those lights are replaced by two alternating flashing red lights in each of the clusters. This means it's safe to drive again, as long as there are no pedestrians in sight.

While drivers are looking at all the lights, walk signs tell pedestrians when it's safe to cross.

From there, the process repeats.

It's a good thing it's a tech-savvy area. Because people will need it.

"It is tough [to understand]. But I think, like with anything, you have to give it a chance and put it in play," Baut said, standing outside the biotech giant's headquarters passing out a stack of fliers.

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Baut said he had faith that the system would work, even though drivers and pedestrians at first seemed perplexed by the symphony of changing lights and walk signs.

He said it would increase pedestrian safety in an area where there have been accidents and "significant near-misses."

The pamphlets, which feature 12 diagrams — six explaining the system for people walking, and six for those driving — were also on display at the check-in counter inside Biogen's main building.

The HAWK system is activated by pressing a button, and turns off when no one is around to cross, all the lights going dark.

In a study of its effectiveness, the Federal Highway Administration determined that there was "a statistically significant reduction in pedestrian crashes" when using HAWK.

Jennifer Dovey, a Biogen employee, said it should be easy for pedestrians to pick up on the changes. But for drivers, it could be difficult.

"I have no idea how cars are going to know," she said. "I drive down this street, and I would have no idea what these lights mean."

She called the distribution of a flier to explain the signal to those walking "odd."

"It doesn't seem like that's going to be that effective," she said.

Joseph Barr, Cambridge's director of traffic, parking, and transportation, said the HAWK system is the first signal of its kind to be set up in Cambridge. It's a relatively new light system that is being tested in cities nationwide, he said.

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The city installed HAWK at Biogen's request, and will treat it as a pilot program before considering the installation of similar signals elsewhere in Cambridge.

"We aren't planning a lot more of these anytime soon, but if it works well, we would consider using them in other places," said Barr.

He said that while Biogen hands out pamphlets to pedestrians, police officers and electronic signs will help inform drivers of the traffic changes.

"It's a little harder with the drivers because we can't stop them and hand out pamphlets," he said. "But I think if people take it for what it is . . . I think it's a relatively straightforward operation, once you sort of look at it. I wouldn't disagree that there could be a little bit of confusion, but what the experience has been in other cities is they have figured it out very quickly."

Cambridge will treat the HAWK installation as a pilot program before considering putting in similar signals elsewhere.
Cambridge will treat the HAWK installation as a pilot program before considering putting in similar signals elsewhere.(Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff)

Steve Annear can be reached at steve.annear@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.