Published 9 April 2021
Last updated 24 August 2023
In this blog, we cover the differences between different kinds of crossings. We discuss how they work, which use lights, and who can use them.
Cross words: just what’s the difference between zebra, puffin and pelican crossings?
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 always nice to let pedestrians across the road when you’re supposed to!
Zebra crossings have two sets of 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 painted in black and white stripes. Drivers are legally obliged to give way to pedestrians on the crossing, so make sure you scan the road ahead and manage your speed as you approach. 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.
Pelican crossings differ from zebra crossings in that the flow of traffic is controlled by traffic lights. (And, as far as I know, they were not named after a politician called Mr Pelican.) Pedestrians waiting at a pelican crossing are able to press a button that changes the traffic lights to red. Sounds simple enough – pedestrians press the button and cross once the lights are red. Well, in theory it is simple, but accidents can and do occur as a result of drivers misunderstanding the light sequence or just not seeing pedestrians.
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 make sure you scan ahead. The lights will change to amber and then to red, as normal.
The lights will then remain on red for a set period 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. If there are still pedestrians on the crossing, you must not move forward until they've safely crossed to the far pavement.
Pelicans and puffins are essentially the same (try telling that to an ornithologist!), except that a puffin crossing has its sequences controlled by sensors mounted on the lights, rather than a timer. These sensors can detect whether any pedestrians are on the crossing and control the colour of the lights accordingly. Once the control button has been pressed, the lights will only change back to green once the crossing is clear. A puffin crossing does not have a flashing amber phase; you have to wait until the lights turn green before you move off.
This is a surprise crossing we did not mention at the beginning, but it’s worth knowing about. Toucan crossings are designed for pedestrians and cyclists to use at the same time. That’s not to say that cyclists cannot use zebra, pelican and puffin crossings, but they should get off their bikes and wheel them across. With a toucan crossing, the area is wider, leaving plenty of room for cyclists to ride across.
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’ll know what happens here.
There’s no such thing in road safety, but there are some fine jokes.
Well, that concludes our short zoological tour. Do not 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.