AASHTO’s Vision of Safe Streets for Seniors: Bigger Type on Highway Signs

Last June, Transportation for America brought the nation’s attention to the fact that older Americans are increasingly stuck in the suburbs without adequate transportation options, leading them to see family and friends and even doctors less. That same month, the Senate Banking Committee held a hearing on transportation access for older Americans.

Not all mobility improvements for seniors involve getting in a car. Photo by Dan Burden via Transportation for America.

The debate raged: Was transit expansion the answer to the mobility crisis? Or should seniors be moving to more walkable neighborhoods? Could resource-starved local transportation authorities support more paratransit services? Or would driverless cars save the day, as proposed by Randal O’Toole of the Cato Institute?

Now, a transportation research group known as TRIP has teamed up with AASHTO to produce a new report on how to keep baby boomers mobile as they age [PDF]. Their solution: brighter signs and wider lanes.

TRIP and AASHTO also mention designing and operating roads to accommodate all users – “when appropriate.” They throw a few bones to pedestrians, like refuge islands and countdown signals. But they must not have been thinking about the safety of those pedestrians when they suggested widening lanes, adding left-turn lanes, and making roadway curves more gradual. As David Burwell of the Carnegie Endowment’s climate program says, those changes would just create “more pavement for those pesky walkers and bicyclists to cross.” TRIP also suggests adding rumble strips to alert drivers when they’re leaving the lane – and, of course, to leave cyclists riding on the shoulder miserably saddle-sore by the end of their ride.

And as for “clearer, brighter and simpler signage with larger lettering, including overhead indicators for turning lanes and overhead street signs” – the number one recommendation in the report? “Great idea,” said Burwell. “And how about the pedestrians, bicyclists and other road users — maybe we all should be required to carry bright signs in large letters saying ‘Please don’t hit me!’”

TRIP’s recommendations don’t end with street treatments. They’d also like to see training and monitoring for drivers as they get older, though they mention several times that older people “self-regulate” their driving, sticking to familiar routes during daytime, off-peak hours. (Expecting to solve the problem of unsafe senior driving through “self-regulation” is kind of like trying to solve the immigration crisis through “self-deportation.”)

And of course, since crashes are a fact of life when we’re talking about automobiles, TRIP wants to make sure the cars are “crashworthy” and that the drivers are wearing seat belts. They also suggest intelligent “crash avoidance technologies.” They don’t specify what technologies they mean, but it’s probably things like automatic braking and steering away from a potential collision – sort of like Randal O’Toole’s fabled self-driving cars.

Does transit factor into TRIP and AASHTO’s vision of a safer and more independent future for seniors at all? Barely. They promote accessible vehicles and stations and give only the briefest mention to expansion of “bus and transit routes,” ride-sharing and paratransit services – the items that T4America focused on in its report on the subject.

There is no one easy solution to the mobility problems of America’s aging population, but TRIP seems to assume that the main answer lies in keeping seniors in their cars. The report states that older people “may be physically unable to use other modes such as transit, walking or cycling.” According to the authors, 90 percent of travel by those 65 and over takes place in a private vehicle, though that rate falls to 80 percent for those 85 and up.

More attention to smart growth solutions would be a sensible first attempt to remedy the problem – making sure goods and services are within reach of older residents without requiring them to get into a car in the first place. And transit is still an important part of the answer. Just because seniors don’t currently use transit in large numbers doesn’t mean they wouldn’t if transit frequently and reliably went where they wanted to go.

Surely, there are countless more ways that we as a society could contribute to the quality of life of seniors. Let’s not end the conversation at oversize-type highway signs and left-turn lanes.

  • And it’s great, cause all these ideas work for drunk drivers too, making it safer for drunk drivers everywhere.

  • RichardC

    AASHTO is right about one thing- watching my grandparents age has shown that seniors really do “self-regulate”- two of them stopped driving after each falling asleep at the wheel and totaling their own vehicles. Fortunately, those collisions were with a ditch and a tree, not other people on or near the road, and my grandparents both eventually recovered. Now maybe there are road designs that could have prevented their accidents, like triple wide shoulders with rumble strips and sand traps at the edge, but my guess is they would have climbed back behind the wheel the very next day and continued driving until sooner or later they did crash.

  • Rapierlynx, PE

    The actual phrasing is “Where appropriate, widening lanes and shoulders to reduce the consequence of driving mistakes.”

    Recent research has shown that wider lanes do not improve the safety of suburban and urban roads, so, “where appropriate” will mostly be rural, higher speed roads.

  • Anonymous

    What about the “wrong” or “stuck” gas pedal issue?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Russell_Weller

  • Parlorpink

    AARP, which represents millions of seniors, has a wider view. It would be great if they reviewed and publicly critiqued the study.

  • Anonymous

    The thing that really makes me angry about the case TAPman references is that in the end, it was the city which was held financially responsible. In other words, if a city allows a street closing, it’s responsible when a maniac rams the crowd. Right back to the “only method of ensuring pedestrian safety is to have no pedestrians” philosophy that seems to predominate in this country.

ALSO ON STREETSBLOG

Surprise! People Aged 60-79 Are Leading the Biking Boom

|
Michael Andersen blogs for The Green Lane Project, a PeopleForBikes program that helps U.S. cities build better bike lanes to create low-stress streets. The national surge in adult bicycling since 1995 may have more to do with healthy hips than with hipsters. Biking rates among people between the ages of 60 and 79 are soaring, […]

Research Bolsters Case for Cycle Tracks While AASHTO Updates Guide

|
For decades, dueling camps of cycling advocates have feuded about how to best accommodate riders. Some have pushed for the construction of Dutch-style cycle tracks, arguing that separated lanes make bicycling safer and less intimidating, while others have insisted such infrastructure isolates riders and makes cycling more dangerous than simply remaining within the flow of […]

Leaving Cars Behind, Seniors Find Streets Inhospitable

|
A recent poll conducted by AARP finds that Americans over the age of 50 are cutting down on car trips due to rising gas prices, but are finding public infrastructure, or lack thereof, to be an obstacle. Almost one of every three people (29%) polled say they are now walking as a way to avoid […]