Older Pedestrians Are Dying on Our Roads

Funny, they don't look like they're drinking or Snapchatting — but they must be doing something wrong. (Photo: DAMIEN MEYER/AFP/Getty Images)

Driving a car is so difficult these days; it seems that whenever you get behind the wheel, someone leaps in front of you. That’s why so many safety campaigns these days are pushing the idea of "shared responsibility," as the Executive Director Jonathan Adkins of the Governors Highway Safety Association tweets:

No walking while distracted

Sun City safety committee
Yes, but perhaps the 2000 pound steel box has more. (Photo: Sun City safety committee)

"Shared responsibility" is a way of telling pedestrians that they shouldn’t look at their phones or listen to music while crossing the street, even as drivers blow through red lights because they're distracted by giant displays in their sealed boxes with big sound systems. But if they do get hit by that car and are "Walking While Distracted," the pedestrian shares responsibility for what happened.

No Walking While Drunk

It's not just phones, either; pedestrians now have the responsibility to ensure that they are not Walking While Drunk. According to Jenni Bergal of Pew Stateline, Pedestrian deaths are up nationwide, fueled by people who walk while drunk. She claims that a third of pedestrians killed in 2016 were over the legal limit for alcohol.

"Those numbers are pretty shocking," said Jonathan Adkins, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association, which represents state highway safety offices. "We think this is a big problem."

Angie Schmitt of Streetsblog is not impressed and writes that the PBS article "violates the most basic precepts of good journalism in a pathetic attempt to pin the rise in pedestrian fatalities on people who drink and walk." But Adkins is not backing down:

No Walking While Old

That's easy for Adkins to say because he has a choice about being distracted or being impaired; many people do not. As an aging baby boomer, my hearing is significantly impaired, and so is my vision. I happen to be otherwise healthy, can afford terrific hearing aids and recent cataract surgery, but many people are not so lucky.

There are so many problems that arise from Walking While Old. An English study titled Most older pedestrians are unable to cross the road in time found "Older pedestrians are more likely to die or be seriously injured in road traffic collisions than younger people due to decreased walking speed, slower decision-making and perceptual difficulties." Unlike Adkins, they're not in this state out of choice.

chart of death rate vs speed of car
The faster cars go, the deadlier they are. (Photo: Streets.MN)

When hit, older people are also more likely to die because their bodies are more fragile. So when you combine a rapidly growing proportion of the population that is older, slower and smaller — often hit by bigger and faster SUVs and pickups that kill at three times the rate of regular cars — on terrible roads that are too wide for older people to cross in time, you're going to see a big increase in the number of pedestrian deaths. As Jingwen Hu and Kathleen D. Klinich of The University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute wrote in a report on vehicle design:

Age and vehicle type are two important factors affecting the injury risks in vehicle-to-pedestrian crashes. Interestingly, there are currently two independent trends in the world, especially in developed countries, with one being the aging of the population and the other the increasing proportion of SUVs. Unfortunately, both of these trends tend to increase the pedestrian-injury risk. Consequently, addressing the hazards posed by SUVs to older pedestrians is an important traffic-safety challenge.
Older citizens are getting killed, and there are more of them. (Photo: NYC DOT)

Where I live, 60 percent of the people getting hit are boomers and seniors, even though they make up only 14 percent of the population. In New York City, 39 percent of the deaths involve people over 65, who make up only 13 percent of the population. (And they are probably not drunk or Snapchatting as they cross the street.)

I'm not alone in being surprised by Adkin’s position on this issue, but it does seem to be a common blind spot. Everybody focuses on the phones or the alcohol and nobody talks about the rapidly increasing population of compromised older people who drive and walk. According to the U.S. Census Bureau:

"The baby-boom generation is largely responsible for this trend," said Peter Borsella, a demographer in the Population Division. "Baby boomers began turning 65 in 2011 and will continue to do so for many years to come." Residents age 65 and over grew from 35.0 million in 2000, to 49.2 million in 2016, accounting for 12.4 percent and 15.2 percent of the total population, respectively.

New York City’s Department of Transportation recognizes the problem and has been trying with varying degrees of success to implement changes, but when a New Jersey town did these exact things — slowing traffic, road diets, bump outs — this is how the local newspaper pitched it:

Terrible Headline about texting while walking
Is this the worst headline ever?. (Photo: NJ.com)
Officials in Summit say they are coordinating with the local school district and trying to educate residents about the dangers of walking while texting. But because the practice is so widespread, the city has also started to make structural changes to its busiest roadways to try to slow drivers down in popular walking spots around town.
A lot of pedestrian accidents happen in crosswalks where the driver is making a left turn, Summit Police Chief Robert Weck told NJ Advance Media. "You might ... have the right of way. But if you're not paying attention, you may be dead. You need to look and be aware of your surroundings," he said.

Talking about "shared responsibility" is like that New Jersey headline; if only pedestrians wouldn't look at their phones or have a drink, then we wouldn’t have to spend money on fixing roads and making life slower and inconvenient for people in cars. It assumes that everyone has the shared responsibility to make responsible choices.

There are 10,000 more Americans over 65 every day

NYC measures to make streets safer
We need these safety precautions no matter the situation, but as the percentage of older pedestrians increases — and it will — so will the need for universal design solutions. (Photo: NYC DOT)

Many older people out walking don't have a choice. They are physically impaired and distracted, and they can’t do a damn thing about it. They often have to get across the six-lane road and can't walk half a mile to the crosswalk. I've written before: when you mix bad road design with deadly vehicle design and an older population, you get a lot of dead pedestrians.

I'm constantly surprised that there isn't more discussion about this, but then it's easy to blame millennials for looking at their phones, or to blame others for drinking alcohol. It's harder to blame old people, even though they are dying in the streets. I suppose if we're going to keep the traffic moving, the only options are to let them drive forever, or to pack them off to a retirement community with self-driving cars.

Seriously, there are 10,000 more Americans over the age of 65 every day. So let’s stop talking about phones and "shared responsibility" and make the roads safe for everyone.