Friday, March 9, 2012

Preserving Mobility for Older Americans

My mom likes to say that being old isn't hard, but getting there is rough.

Not that she would know, of course.)

For many, one of the roughest parts of aging is giving up driving. Sacrificing the car keys also means sacrificing the freedom to go, comfortably, the places you want to go. As a new generation creeps into the "should you really be driving?" age group, it's no surprise that greater attention is being paid to the mobility needs of older adults, as with the newly-released white paper from AASTHO and TRIP Keeping Baby Boomers Mobile: Preserving the Mobility and Safety of Older Americans.

The paper offers a series of recommendations related to road design, education, licensing, vehicle design, and alternative transportation modes that aim to preserve older adults' ability to move throughout their communities on their own.

Unfortunately (though perhaps not surprisingly for a paper written by a highway association), several of the key recommendations do little to improve the overall safety of the road, and may in fact harm more vulnerable users like pedestrians and cyclists.

Let's begin by examining one of fundamental premises underlying these recommendations, that in the name of safety we must redesign our roads to accommodate older drivers. The paper emphasizes that older drivers are disproportionately represented in fatal crashes. This may be true, but that has more to do with these drivers' frailty than unforgiving roads. In fact, older drivers tend to self-regulate their driving (e.g. drive only during the day, choose "easier" routes), which largely negates the effect of decreased physical abilities on their driving skills.

And let's not forget that while older drivers may be likelier to cause a crash than other adults, the really dangerous ones are younger drivers. According to one RAND study, older drivers may be 16 percent more likely to cause a crash, but younger drivers are 188 percent more likely to do so.

Some of the roadway improvements recommended by the AASHTO and TRIP paper, such as increasing lighting at intersections, could make streets safer for both age groups. Even widening a road to add a left turn lane, while increasing the amount of right-of-way devoted to vehicles, can improve safety for vehicles and other roadway users.

However, several other recommendations have the potential to decrease safety for everyone on the road, particularly vulnerable users (like pedestrians, especially older ones). Widening lanes to "reduce the consequences of driving mistakes" and making roadway curves more gradual and "easy to navigate" translates into more speeding, more dangerous crashes, and more injuries to all roadway users. Recommendations like these also highlight just how deeply ingrained the belief is that wide, straight roads are the safest roads.

There are other ways to improve mobility for older Americans without sacrificing safety for the rest of us, and the paper does touch on some of these. Increasing specialized transit services, promoting ridesharing, and improving sidewalk and crosswalk design to accommodate less-mobile users are some. Replacing traditional intersections with roundabouts or developing specialized vehicles for older drivers can also help. Providing classes on internet browsing and online shopping could also provide older Americans access to goods, services and social networks--without a car.

Changes like these change help preserve safety and mobility--for older Americans and the rest of us. 

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