Walking While Old Is Killing a Lot More Pedestrians Than Walking While Distracted

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They sure don't look like they're Snapchatting. (Photo: Garry Knight [CC BY 2.0]/Flickr)

A 72-year-old man was killed while crossing the street in Toronto recently. According to the Toronto Star, he was the fourth pedestrian over the age of 60 to die in the city in the last 30 days, and the 16th person over age 60 killed this year, out of a total of at least 23 deaths, by the Star’s count.

He was the 80th pedestrian over the age of 60 to die in the streets since the mayor declared Toronto was introducing its version of Vision Zero, a "smart, collaborative approach to reducing injuries and fatalities on our streets."

At some point, it makes you numb.

I recently wrote on TreeHugger about another death in Toronto in which a woman was hit by the driver of a truck who kept going, then hit by another driver in a Honda who got out, had a look, got back in his car and took off. I described the scene:

Midland and Shepard Toronto
The corner where a woman was run over. Twice. (Photo: Google Maps)
There are so many things wrong with this picture. The wide suburban roads are designed so that people drive quickly. The curve radii at the corners are so big that you barely have to slow down to turn. The typical Mack truck has terrible visibility with a long hood; you can barely tell if anyone is in front. And of course, the truck has no side guards so it is easy to get sucked under the rear wheels.

But I neglected a critically important point: The woman (and the more recent victim) were older. And they weren't tweeting or snapchatting.

As I noted in an earlier post on TreeHugger, in a U.S. study of 23,240 pedestrian fatalities between 2010 and 2014, portable electronic devices were only a factor in 25 cases. People aren't stepping off the sidewalk heads down and getting hit because they're playing with their phones.

But there's a more important issue at play here. As a police spokesperson notes in the video above, 60 percent of the people getting hit are older — boomers and seniors — even though they make up only 14 percent of the population. And if you think kids are distracted by looking at screens and listening on earbuds, consider what happens as you age and understand why older people are the victims in so many crashes.

Because while everybody is complaining about young people compromising their hearing and vision with smartphones, the fact is that a huge and growing proportion of our population is compromised by age. Drivers should be driving on the assumption the person in the road is not looking or seeing them, because they might not be able to.

Our roads, intersections and speed limits should be designed for this as well because it's just going to get worse as the 75 million baby boomers age. I'm one of them — now legally a senior, and definitely a boomer. I'm fit because I bike everywhere, but I'm compromised. I have to wear fancy hearables and have had cataract surgery. I'm going through what happens to everyone as they age, and here are just a few of them:

What happens to your vision

Pupil size reduces, so people in their 60s need three times as much ambient light to read.

Focusing is harder, moving the eyes from something close (like the street right in front of you) to something far (like cars down the road) takes longer.

Peripheral vision decreases; the visual field gets smaller by up to 3 degrees per decade.

Color vision deteriorates and the contrast between different colors becomes less noticeable.

Cataracts cloud vision; this affects half of all 65-year-olds and eventually pretty much all seniors.

What happens to your hearing

It gets worse as you age, for almost everyone. Nearly 25 percent of those aged 65 to 74 and 50 percent of those who are 75 and older have disabling hearing loss — and note, that is disabling hearing loss. Only a a third of adults over the age of 70 who could benefit from hearing aids have them, and only 16 percent of those under 70 who could benefit from them have them, so basically, just about every baby boomer and senior out there has some degree of compromise.

What happens to your mobility

An English study found that 84 percent of men and 93 percent of women over the age of 65 had some degree of walking impairment. It concluded that "The vast majority of people over 65 years old in England are unable to walk fast enough to use a pedestrian crossing." As you get older, you walk more slowly and carefully. You are in the road longer, which means there's a greater chance you will get hit. The law in most places (like Ontario) even gives the person in the intersection the right of way, even if the light has already changed, so drivers legally have to be checking the intersection ahead even if the light is green.

comment on TreeHugger
Personal responsibility!. (Photo: Comment on TreeHugger)

This is why I'm so sick of these letters and comments. When I hear or read about a driver complaining about the kids looking at their phones, I get angry because they could be talking about me or my mom — the city is full of people who are compromised or distracted. That doesn't let the driver off the hook. I quoted Brad Aaron of Streetsblog in my earlier post:

"If your transport system has zero tolerance for anyone who isn’t a fit adult, the system is the problem, and ... By casting blame elsewhere you assume everyone is like you — can see, hear, walk perfectly. Arrogant & extremely unhelpful.”

It's the driver's job to be looking out for people in the road, compromised or not. It used to be called "driving defensively," looking everywhere all the time. It's the planner's job and the engineer's job to be designing our cities and roads so they serve everyone of every age, not just the people in cars. It's the pedestrian's job to do his best to get across the street, but that clearly isn't enough for some people in cars. They would rather blame the victim.