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Older People Need Safer Streets for True Independence

10:20 AM EDT on March 26, 2010

193848948_d804bea517.jpgThis is what independence really looks like. (Photo: kamshots via Flickr)

Probably all of us have watched as an aging relative fights to keep on driving despite deteriorating vision or other impairments. I know of one case in which a woman essentially stole her mother's car so that the older lady, who suffered from dementia, would no longer be able to endanger herself and others. This is the flip side of the fabled independence and freedom afforded by the personal motor vehicle: If you live in most parts of the United States and you can't drive, you are trapped. It's a prison of autocentric infrastructure.

And so, of course, many people continue to drive when they shouldn't. That may have been the case in a terrible crash that happened this week in Illinois. Three high school girls on a bike trip were struck by an 86-year-old driver who veered across the center line before hitting them. One of the girls was killed. The other two were seriously injured (and yes, they were wearing helmets and obeying traffic rules).

Adam Voiland at Bicycle Transportation Examiner has this to say about the crash and the danger posed by older drivers:

After teenagers, drivers over the age of 65 are the most dangerous age group behind the wheel. In fact, drivers between the ages of 75 and 84 cause fatalities at rate equal to that of teenagers.  And drivers over the age of 85 cause four times as many deaths for a given distance driven than teenagers.

Some states, including Illinois, have passed special licensing laws to protect the public from unsafe elderly drivers. In Illinois, drivers over 87 must renew their license in person every year and all drivers over the age of 75 must take an in-person test.

Such approaches are reasonable, but simply keeping older drivers off the road is only part of the solution. To preserve their independence and ability to function in society, seniors who lose their licenses need the opportunity to transition toward bicycling and other forms of lower-speed transportation.

Voiland is right, but bicycles aren't necessarily the answer; many of the same physical limitations that prevent people from driving apply to cycling as well. More densely developed communities where people can safely walk to the grocery store, or take a bus to the doctor, are essential if older people are to be truly independent. They also create the opportunity for the incidental social interactions that give meaning and texture to life.

We've talked in the past about the idea of women as an "indicator species" for good cycling infrastructure. Older people are in indicator species, too -- for truly walkable, safe communities where people of all ages don't need to rely on personal motor vehicles to get around.

Thinking that personal motor vehicles are the solution to America's transportation needs is youthful arrogance. May we all live long enough to realize that.

Related: Streetsblog Network member Cap'n Transit has two thoughtful posts this week on "The Supposed Independence of Cars" -- see here and here. As he writes: "In sum, there is no such thing as 'the independence of a car.' There's just the expanded access that can sometimes be achieved through cars, but it can often be achieved in other ways as well."

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