What’s the difference between zebra, puffin, and pelican crossings? (Updated)

Zebra crossing road lettering, look right.

Published 9 April 2021
Last updated 16 April 2024

In this updated blog, we cover the differences between some of the more common types of crossings. We discuss how they work, which use lights, and who can use them.

Puffins, pelicans and zebras? Yes, you’ve read that right – and yes, this is a blog about driving, not an advert for a safari holiday. So why are we talking about them? Well, sorting out the pelicans from the puffins and zebras is an essential part of your road knowledge. It’ll come in handy on your driving test – and it’s important to let pedestrians across the road when you’re supposed to!

Zebra crossings (Highway Code rule 195)

Zebra crossings have two flashing amber beacons (known as ‘Belisha beacons’ after the Liberal politician Leslie Hore-Belisha, who introduced them to crossings in 1934). They have an area of road between them that’s marked with black and white stripes. Drivers are legally obliged to give way to pedestrians once they step on to the crossing, but if you see pedestrians waiting to cross, you should still give way to them.

How to approach a zebra crossing

Make sure you scan the road ahead and manage your speed. Sometimes it may look as though pedestrians plan to stay on the pavement, but they can suddenly change direction and cross the road. Keep your speed down and only go ahead when you’re sure that the crossing is clear.

Remember: zebra crossings do not have traffic lights, but they do have a broken 'give way' line that you must not cross when you stop. Failing to give way to pedestrians is a criminal offence that can result in points on a driving licence – even a provisional licence – so it’s worth getting to know the rules.

Parallel crossings (Highway Code rule 195)

Parallel crossings differ from zebra crossings in one important respect. A parallel crossing has a cycle route that runs alongside the black and white stripes. Fortunately, you don’t have to learn a whole new set of rules when you encounter them. Just treat them the same way as a standard zebra crossing and give way to pedestrians or cyclists who are waiting to cross.

Pelican crossings (Highway Code rule 196)

At a pelican crossing, the flow of traffic is controlled by traffic lights. Pedestrians press a button that changes the traffic lights to red. Sounds simple enough – but accidents can and do happen because drivers misunderstand the light sequence.

The traffic light sequence

Unless there are people already on the crossing, you can keep going if the lights are green, even if there are people waiting to cross. But, if you see pedestrians waiting, do not suddenly accelerate to get through the crossing before the lights change. Approach carefully and keep an eye on the lights. When the lights change to amber you should stop before the stop line - if it’s safe to do so. You must not drive on when the red light shows.

The lights will then remain on red for a set period of time before changing to flashing amber. This is to allow people time to finish crossing. The flashing amber light means you’re free to continue if – and only if – the crossing is clear. The lights then go back to green. If there are still pedestrians on the crossing, you must not move forward until they've safely crossed to the far pavement.

Puffin crossings (Highway code rule 199)

Puffin crossings are also controlled by lights. Unlike pelican crossings, puffin crossings have their sequences controlled by sensors mounted on the lights, rather than a timer. These crossing are ‘intelligent’ and help to keep traffic flowing. The sensors can detect if pedestrians push the button then walk away. When this happens they cancel the request. They also detect if pedestrians are still on the crossing and give them longer to cross, up to a pre-set maximum. A puffin crossing does not have a flashing amber phase; you must wait until the lights turn green before you move off, just like normal traffic lights.

Toucan crossings (Highway Code rule 199)

This is a surprise crossing we did not mention at the beginning, but it’s worth knowing about! Like its parallel cousin above, toucan crossings are designed for pedestrians and cyclists. They’re not the same though: toucan crossings have traffic lights that use the same mounted sensors to control the flow of traffic as puffin crossings. However, they are usually wider than the standard puffin crossing to allow room for cyclists to ride across with pedestrians.

The good news for drivers is that there’s no new light sequence to remember. If you know what happens at a puffin crossing, then you know what happens here.

Chicken crossings

There’s no such thing in road safety, but there are some fine jokes.

One final point…

Make sure you keep crossings clear. If the road is exceptionally busy and traffic is queuing, wait until you are able to completely clear it before you cross.

More information

Well, that concludes our short tour of road crossings. Don’t forget that there’s plenty more on this and other essentials topics in The Official DVSA Theory Test for Car Drivers, Driving – the Essential Skills and The Official Highway Code.

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