On Senior Citizens' Day, a Look at the Problems of Walking While Old

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

There are all kinds of distracted and compromised people in our roads. Some of them cannot help it.

It's Senior Citizens' Day in the USA, and I previously rounded up stories I have written on sister site Treehugger about planning and design. In that series I suggest that we have to go on a car-free diet and walk a whole lot more -- it's the best medicine.

But walking is often not easy, especially if you want to get across a street. And especially in this modern era, when all the police departments are on a campaign to convince us that "safety is a shared responsibility."

As I wrote in my post, Older pedestrians are dying on our roads, "'Shared responsibility' is code for it's always the pedestrian's fault — but that doesn't work when you're talking about aging boomers."

The shared responsibility people talk about walking in dark clothing or walking while texting or wearing headphones, or now walking while drunk, all of which slow down reaction times and crossing speed. But those are the same things that happen when you are walking while old.

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.

More: Older pedestrians are dying on our roads

Complaining about walking while texting is like complaining about walking while old

There are all kinds of distracted and compromised people in our roads. Some of them cannot help it.

aging population


This is why I continue to get so upset about walking while texting campaigns.

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.

As people get older their hearing and eyesight deteriorate. They become afraid of fallign and often are looking down for hazards rather than scanning for cars. They are walking with the right of way, yet are supposed to be alert, able to jump out of the way of cars. It's nuts. As Brad Aaron of Streetsblog noted,

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.

As I concluded,

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.

More: Complaining about walking while texting is like complaining about walking while old

The old and the young need safer streets

So let's talk about the steps that could get us there.

Celebration, where the streets are designed for walking. Wikipedia

There was a battle in Celebration over road design; the fire chief wanted a big right of way, while the designers wanted narrow roads and trees. I noted:

The point is that all the things that make Celebration lousy for speeding cars and fire trucks are the very things we need in our cities to make them safer for pedestrians — especially the aging population, which is disproportionately in injured and even killed in these scenarios.

I suggest all kinds of traffic calming measures, but conclude with a question: "All of these measures require planners and politicians to make a fundamental choice: who comes first, drivers or pedestrians? There has to be a priority."

More: The old and the young need safer streets

It's time to take back the streets and make them safe for walking

Soon there will be 56 million Americans over the age of 65. They should be able to cross the street.

statistics on deaths

© New Scientist

There are a number of factors all coming together to make the roads deadly for everyone walking. It's not just road design:

Older people are dying in the streets because their bodies are more fragile, yet the mix of vehicles on the street gets deadlier every year as more people drive SUVs and pickup trucks that have front ends that are like vertical walls of steel. In Europe, cars have to meet tough standards for pedestrian safety; in the USA this is ignored. SUVs and pickups kill at twice the rate of regular cars, yet there are no standards.

People also drive too fast, and they are distracted by phones and dashboards. I made some suggestions:

We need Vision Zero and road diets. Just lowering speed limits doesn’t work; people will drive at the speed they feel safe driving at. Narrower roads slow drivers down and make it easier for people to cross.

We need safer, more pedestrian-friendly cars. American cars should have to all meet the European safety standards; SUVs and pickups should have to meet them or be banned from cities.

More: It's time to take back the streets and make them safe for walking

More of the same: Our roads and our vehicles aren't designed with pedestrians in mind