Deadly crossings: Keeping older adults safer

By Mary Bart

The truth is, more older pedestrians are dying on our roads today than in previous years. Let’s take a look at the numbers, issues and ways older pedestrians can stay safe.

The numbers

Pedestrian deaths in Canada are on the rise, and it is recognized that road safety has been far more focused on vehicle drivers and occupants than on those on foot. According to the Toronto Star, 42 pedestrians were killed on Toronto roads in 2019. Of that total, more than 80 per cent were older adults. This is a 15 per cent increase over the past five years and, with an aging population, represents a worrisome trend that is only expected to get worse. Montreal had 19 deaths as it neared the end of November, with 60 per cent of those deaths occurring in being people aged 65 years or older. Calgary has reported 3,834 pedestrian collisions from 2004 to 2014, resulting in 95 fatalities.

As the expression goes, “Speed kills.” The World Health Organization says there is a 90 per cent survival rate for pedestrians
hit by a vehicle travelling at 30 km/h or slower. However, this rate drops dramatically, to 50 per cent, when the vehicle is going at 45 km/h or more. The type of vehicle also plays a significant role in the likelihood of death. For instance, minivans, sport utility vehicles and pickup trucks were involved in 37 per cent of all pedestrian deaths in Toronto in 2019. Many believe it is because these types of vehicles are heavier and sit higher, so that they directly hit a person’s torso rather than their legs.

10 Safety tips for pedestrians 

  1. Walk defensively. Be visible, walk in safe, well-lit places.
  2. Make eye contact with drivers if possible.
  3. Cross at lights or crosswalks.
  4. Put your cellphone and headphones away.
  5. Wear reflective clothing and carry a flashlight at night.
  6. Understand and obey the rules of the road.
  7. Look right and left before crossing.
  8. Watch for cars backing up in parking lots— the driver might not see you. Parking lots can be as dangerous as roads.
  9. Look out for cars coming out of driveways and alleyways. The driver’s view can be blocked by bushes or trees.
  10. If there are no sidewalks, walk facing the traffic coming toward you.

Walk defensively

As I see it, the responsibility for pedestrian deaths is shared by three groups: governments, drivers and pedestrians. Municipal governments could be doing more by educating the public, improving law enforcement and re-engineering crosswalks, road signs and traffic lights for safer crossings. Indeed, a report by the OECD’s International Transport Forum suggests that road deaths are a result of poor law enforcement, and the more troubling reality that our society does not care enough about road deaths. Motorists often drive too fast and are distracted by cell phones, texting, music, GPSs and passengers. Pedestrians sometimes take unwise risks by darting out into traffic without looking, failing to cross at crosswalks or traffic lights, looking at their cellphone while walking and not wearing reflective clothing at night. Often, for older adults, the long distance to walk to a proper crossing is too hard so they simply decide to jaywalk. Some underestimate the speed of the traffic or the slow pace of their walking, putting themselves in a vulnerable—perhaps even fatal—position.

In addition, walkers impaired by alcohol and drugs pose a grave danger to themselves and others. In 2008, almost 40 per cent of pedestrians killed had been drinking, and 27 per cent had a blood alcohol content of more than 160 mg.

Reality check

Older adults often have reduced mobility and move slowly. They may also have compromised memory, hearing and sight. Physical and cognitive declines can cause people to stop driving and walk more. According to Amanda O’Rourke, Executive Director of the not-for-profit organization 8 80 Cities: “Older adults are more vulnerable on our roads and are more likely to be victims of road violence… and this is a trend we’ve known for a while.” Figures even show that people older than 70 years are more likely to be involved in serious accidents.

Countermeasures and solutions

Experts suggest that lowering the speed limit on every road in every major Canadian city would reduce the rate of deaths. One Quebec study has recommended “providing shortened crossing distances, or longer crossing times, to increase the convenience and safety of walking for elderly populations.” Other studies have suggested that the stricter enforcement of driving laws and road re-engineering (e.g., including road bumps, barriers and lane restrictions) could be used to slow traffic down.

But pedestrians, especially those who are vulnerable, must be mindful of how they’re behaving. Purposefully reducing the risks of being hit and knowing their physical limitations should be part of their own and their caregivers’ personal safety plans. One of the more effective ways to reduce collisions at night is to wear reflective clothing, patches or tags arranged in a “biomotion configuration” to take advantage of eye-catching movements from the pedestrian’s legs, feet and arms.

Other opportunities for improved community safety include installing overhead flashing beacons, high-intensity activated crosswalks, pedestrian scramble operations and pedestrian advanced greens, and legally prohibiting drivers from turning right on a red light.

Roundabouts are commonly used in other countries and have been shown to reduce pedestrian/vehicle accidents by almost 75 per cent. Auditory messages, improved warning signs in work zones, vehicle volume dispersal plans and calming measures also increase pedestrian protection.

But at the end of the day, we all need to aware and respectful of each other when it comes to road safety.

Safety tips for drivers

BACKING UP

Turn your head to look back when reversing—don’t let your car camera do all the work. Maybe hit your horn to alert pedestrians, even roll down your window to listen to what is around you. Parking lots are particularly dangerous places. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, 52 per cent of all back-over injuries occur in parking lots, and the National Safety Council tells us that around two-thirds of drivers are distracted by searching for a parking spot. Try to find a spot that lets you drive right through, to avoid backing up.

WEATHER / TIME OF DAY

Adjust your driving to the road conditions. Icy, wet or snow-covered roads may cause you to slide or have difficulty stopping for pedestrians. It is equally important to adjust your driving based on the time of day. It is very hard to see pedestrians at night, dusk or dawn, especially if they are not wearing reflective clothing. The “commuter sun” rising and setting as you go to and from work can be blinding, and can make it easy to miss seeing a pedestrian about
to cross the road.

URBAN AREAS

Driving in a downtown area can be stressful, particularly for drivers used to rural and suburban roads. Downtown areas are more crowded, busier, noisier and full of distractions— pedestrians are everywhere, often darting out and not obeying all the rules of the road. If you’re not comfortable with the fast, hectic, changing pace of urban driving, consider whether it’s possible to take public transit. If you really have to drive downtown, take extra time and be strictly vigilant around pedestrians.

PEDESTRIANS WITH SPECIAL NEEDS

Whether it is a toddler, an older person using a walker or a visually impaired person, drivers need to be extra cautious, kind and patient while these pedestrians cross the road.

CROSSWALKS / TRAFFIC LIGHTS

Before turning, stop at the corner and look to see if pedestrians are crossing or waiting to cross the road. When making your turn, let the pedestrian fully cross your path before moving forward. When a traffic light turns green, take a moment to make sure no pedestrians are still crossing the road.

 

Mary Bart is the chair of Caregiving Matters, an internet-based charity that offers education and support to family caregivers.

Related Articles

Recent Articles

Complimentary Issue

If you would like to receive a free digital copy of this magazine enter your email.

Accessibility