Skip to contentUnited States Department of Transportation - Federal Highway Administration FHWA Home
Research Home
Public Roads
Featuring developments in Federal highway policies, programs, and research and technology.
This magazine is an archived publication and may contain dated technical, contact, and link information.
Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 73 · No. 5 > Watching Out for Senior Walkers

March/April 2010
Vol. 73 · No. 5

Publication Number: FHWA-HRT-10-001

Watching Out for Senior Walkers

by Essie Wagner

An NHTSA workshop educates local transportation engineers, law enforcement officers, elected officials, and others on how to increase safety for older pedestrians.

In a classroom in Greenbelt, MD, seniors, local transportation engineers, and other professionals participate in a pilot run of the NHTSA Pedestrian Safety Workshop.
In a classroom in Greenbelt, MD, seniors, local transportation engineers, and other professionals participate in a pilot run of the NHTSA Pedestrian Safety Workshop.

Senior Americans — those aged 65 and older — are a challenging population when it comes to delivering information on pedestrian safety. Retirees cannot be reached through workforce programs, and senior centers serve only a small minority of the population. However, considering that most senior pedestrians have been walking successfully for six decades or more, transportation safety professionals might well wonder whether such information is needed.

Unfortunately, it is. Compared with other age groups, older pedestrians are at greater risk of being killed in traffic incidents. In 2008, pedestrians aged 65 and older accounted for 803 deaths or 18 percent of all pedestrian fatalities and an estimated 7,000 (10 percent) of all pedestrian injuries. That same year, the fatality rate for pedestrians aged 65 and older was 2.1 per 100,000 people — a higher rate than for any other age group.

Demographic pressures add to this challenge. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, people aged 85 and older are the fastest growing segment of the population. The baby boom generation will begin turning 65 in 2011, pushing the number of older Americans from today's 13 percent of the population to more than 19 percent by 2030.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), sister agency to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), is charged with saving lives and preventing injuries on the Nation's roads through education, research, safety standards, and enforcement activities. In the last 5 years, NHTSA staff reviewed research on pedestrian safety with the goal of developing a program that could make a lasting difference.

The NHTSA researchers found that protecting pedestrians requires a comprehensive approach: Education, enforcement, engineering, and encouragement all have important roles to play in creating the safest pedestrian environments. NHTSA also recognized that having a measurable impact requires action at the local level, where decisions about these activities are made.

To address these challenges, NHTSA and the University of North Carolina's Highway Safety Research Center (UNC/HSRC) developed a Pedestrian Safety Workshop to help older walkers stay safe, while opening the door to collaboration with engineers from local departments of transportation (DOTs), law enforcement personnel, and local decisionmakers. In 2008 and 2009, UNC/HSRC conducted a series of pilot workshops in Greenbelt, MD, Arlington, VA, and Las Vegas, NV, to test the concept and refine the instructor materials. Each audience offered a different dynamic, contributing to NHTSA's refinement of a set of instructional materials published under the title, Pedestrian Safety Workshop: A Focus on Older Adults. (See "For more information" on page 48.)

The half-day workshop targets older pedestrians, local DOT engineers, law enforcement personnel, traffic safety education professionals, and influential decisionmakers such as elected officials. The workshop aims to foster interaction among these groups so that individuals learn names and faces, and they can call on each other as resources after the workshop is over. In the past, bringing together these key parties was not necessarily a priority for transportation professionals when addressing pedestrian safety. However, the new workshop is focusing on this need.

Says Brian McLaughlin, NHTSA's senior associate administrator for traffic injury control, "We absolutely must do a better job of protecting older pedestrians because the status quo isn't working."

Facilities like this crosswalk in Florida encourage seniors such as these two women to obtain exercise by walking.
Facilities like this crosswalk in Florida encourage seniors such as these two women to obtain exercise by walking.

A Comprehensive Approach

Pedestrian safety problems rarely have single solutions. For example, drivers making right turns at red lights without coming to complete stops can put pedestrians at risk. The engineering solution might be to prohibit these turns or modify the turning radius to slow drivers' speeds. Another approach is for law enforcement officers to issue citations to drivers who fail to stop completely. Still another option is for the transportation community to employ educational measures to remind pedestrians and drivers to watch out for one another, particularly at high-risk locations.

These workshop participants are taking their observational walkabout on a narrow sidewalk in Greenbelt, MD.
These workshop participants are taking their observational walkabout on a narrow sidewalk in Greenbelt, MD.

These approaches involve a mix of short-term and long-term, low-cost and more costly solutions. They also involve tradeoffs. For example, prohibiting right turns on red might reduce the level of service at an intersection. But that step might be necessary because the goal is to find the best solution that will have an immediate and lasting impact.

Obtaining political permission to put various options into play also is important. To that end, involving elected officials in selecting the appropriate countermeasures is valuable, especially given the various agencies and different roles and responsibilities involved in each measure. For a guide to selecting countermeasures, see PEDSAFE at www.walkinginfo.org/pedsafe/pedsafe_ca_crashtypes.cfm. Also see How to Develop a Pedestrian Safety Action Plan (FHWA-SA-05-12) at www.walkinginfo.org/library/details.cfm?id=229.

Workshop Content

In developing the Pedestrian Safety Workshop, NHTSA and UNC/HSRC wanted to make it easy for any interested person regardless of age or transportation background to obtain the instructional materials and deliver the half-day event. To support that aim, the partners produced a guide that walks instructors through the process of conducting a workshop, including becoming familiar with the content, publicizing the workshop, and preparing to teach. The guide also covers securing the participation of relevant disciplines and gathering handouts, both those included in the guide and those locally developed. Finally, the guide contains scripts and speaker notes for seven modules, which run in length from 10 to 45 minutes:

This heaved sidewalk in Arlington, VA, creates a tripping hazard, especially for senior pedestrians like this one who uses a walker.
This heaved sidewalk in Arlington, VA, creates a tripping hazard, especially for senior pedestrians like this one who uses a walker.

1. Welcome and Introduction. A brief description of the purpose and structure of the workshop.

2. Walking and Older Adults. A fundamental grounding in the benefits of walking for older adults and the broader community, and the problems that make ensuring safety a challenge.

3. Watching Out for Us. A special module for a general audience, containing practical information related to risky situations and what participants can do to be safer when walking.

4. The Walking Environment. A basic presentation on pedestrian infrastructure, including sidewalks and trails, pedestrian crossings, and the influence of infrastructure on motor vehicle speed.

5. Completing the Picture. A sampling of education, enforcement, and encouragement programs from across the country that address topics such as speeding, health promotion, and the value of walking.

6. Taking an Observational Walk. A brief walk around the workshop's neighborhood and a return to the classroom to discuss the experience, with a focus on challenging situations and measures that could make walking more appealing and safer.

7. Discussion and Next Steps. A wrap-up in which the instructor encourages participants to express how they intend to use what they learned to improve pedestrian facilities and safety.

Shown here is a delivery vehicle blocking the sidewalk and forcing pedestrians into the street during the Arlington walkabout.
Shown here is a delivery vehicle blocking the sidewalk and forcing pedestrians into the street during the Arlington walkabout.

The third module, Watching Out for Us, is designed to be a stand-alone workshop targeting older pedestrians. Containing 30 minutes of practical information, the module is appropriate for use at senior wellness classes, community centers, or other settings where older people look for information. The module identifies specific situations that are particularly challenging to older pedestrians and provides actions that, if followed, will keep the older pedestrian safer. The take-away-and-use format of the materials offers participants a tangible way to take action after the workshop by increasing the likelihood of them sharing key safety messages with other older adults.

Within the context of the complete workshop, the sixth module, Taking an Observational Walk, stands out as the single most thought-provoking experience for participants. The 20-minute walk — essentially around the block with people from each discipline walking with and listening to the older participants — is an eye-opening and humbling experience, according to the professional participants.

In the three pilot workshops, participants observed opportunities for engineering, enforcement, education, and encouragement actions to play a role in improving conditions. For example, participants noted missing sidewalk links and poorly maintained sidewalks (engineering), delivery vans blocking curb ramps and crosswalks (enforcement), and pedestrians crossing against signals (education and enforcement). They also saw motorists driving into gym parking lots, a clear opportunity for encouraging walking for exercise. Participants also saw firsthand how seemingly minor inconveniences to the average pedestrian, such as water pooled at the base of a pedestrian curb cut, can be major barriers to safe mobility, particularly for individuals who use assistive devices such as scooters, wheelchairs, and walkers.

This pedestrian stops and looks past a vehicle before deciding that it's safe to continue crossing.
This pedestrian stops and looks past a vehicle before deciding that it's safe to continue crossing.

Another aspect of the workshop includes information about the functional changes that older people are likely to experience and how those changes influence their ability to move around in the community. Functional changes show up as slower walking speeds, vision and hearing changes, and sometimes the addition of assistive devices such as walkers and scooters.

Each of these functional changes can result in safety challenges. For example, poor visual acuity might make it difficult for a person to see and interpret a crossing signal on a pole six lanes away. The workshop also addresses common crash situations involving older pedestrians, including specific actions they can take to remain safe. Older participants in the workshops expressed appreciation for the applied nature of the presentations and suggested that some of the presentations might be valuable to other age groups as well.

Professionals and the Public Work Together

One key component of the workshop is that participants include professionals from various disciplines, and they are called on throughout the presentation to clarify or amplify the instructor's points. One senior participant remarked, "I liked that you brought in people who were experts in the various aspects of what we were talking about. You brought in a main agenda...and they elaborated on that."

Ask local transportation engineers and planners about their challenges in dealing with the public, and many will cite the time it takes to help the public understand why a neighborhood's preferred strategy for addressing a problem cannot be implemented. For example, the engineering staff might have to explain that a four-way stop is not warranted at the intersection of two minor roads. Other disciplines might have similar experiences with these "you-can't-do-that" issues.

In developing the workshop, the team tailored messages and activities to establish a common basis for discussion across disciplines. The reasoning was that summarizing some of the things that can be done by various partner disciplines can be helpful. When the public approaches professionals to ask for changes or the establishment of various programs or activities, this approach helps ensure that reasonable activities and feasible alternatives are available. The message to senior participants in the workshop is: "This is how to work with these professionals."

Sample of Practical Advice Provided at the Workshops

Common Crash Situations

Actions Pedestrians Should Take

Multiple Threat — A driver in one lane stops for a pedestrian but blocks the pedestrian from view by a driver in the adjacent lane, so that motorist fails to brake.

The pedestrian should stop at the edge of the stopped car and confirm that the driver in the next lane has stopped.

Parking Lots — Drivers in backing vehicles might be unable to see past adjacent parked vehicles and back into pedestrians who are walking across the lot.

Pedestrians should look for backing lights and for cars that are starting to move. Listen for engine noise. When in doubt, pedestrians should wait for drivers to drive on or to see them.

Turning Vehicles — Drivers making left turns often are looking at oncoming traffic and forget about pedestrians in the crosswalk. Drivers turning right tend to look to the left for oncoming traffic and might not notice pedestrians crossing.

Pedestrians should always look for turning vehicles and expect drivers not to see them. By anticipating drivers' actions, pedestrians can protect themselves better.

Moving Between Parked Cars — A driver starting up a parked car usually does not expect to see a pedestrian weaving between parked cars.

Workshop instructors always discourage this action but also recognize that people might do it anyway. If there are no other options, pedestrians should look to be sure that neither car is likely to start moving.

Low Lighting — Twilight and early evening are high-risk times for older pedestrians. More of them are killed in late afternoon and early evening hours than at other times of the day.

Pedestrians should make themselves visible. Bright clothing during the day and retroreflective gear and flashlights for twilight and night can help drivers see pedestrians a few seconds sooner, enabling the motorists to stop more quickly.

Alleys and Driveways — A driver exiting an alley sometimes does not expect pedestrians, or buildings might block the motorist's view.

Just as in parking lots, pedestrians should listen and look for vehicles exiting or entering alleys. Treat driveways like any other intersection and anticipate driver actions.

Benefits Brought Out at The Pilot Workshops

Having the right professionals attending the workshops helps older participants by introducing them to the right engineering, enforcement, and education actions to ask for and the right behaviors to follow to keep them safer as pedestrians. The Las Vegas pilot workshop, for example, helped a local group identify safety issues and solutions. Providing pedestrian safety education is one of the activities of the Safe Community Partnership, a local Las Vegas coalition whose mission is to reduce fatalities and injuries that result from traffic crashes. The partnership hosted and publicized the pilot workshop.

According to Erin Breen, director of the partnership, "The greatest value of the program is that it gives advocates an opportunity to identify and address walking issues within the senior population, which are somewhat different from [those that affect] the general population."

Bringing in local engineers and planners not only improves the quality of the workshop for the older participants, but also it helps the professionals gain understanding of the challenges faced by senior pedestrians. This knowledge helps the professionals focus on specifics (such as missing sidewalk links between a bus stop and a senior center) and to develop a plan to address such concerns.

David Goodman, bicycle and pedestrian programs manager in Arlington County, VA, notes the value of professionals having the opportunity to try out assistive devices in neighborhoods near the workshops' venues. "Using a walker or wheelchair on streets and sidewalks that many of us were already familiar with was one of those eye-opening experiences that really drove home the importance of basic maintenance and attention to details." Often the necessary fixes are relatively inexpensive but can make a big difference in an older person's ability to move safely throughout a community, Goodman adds.

Law enforcement officers noted in particular the workshops' value in providing opportunities to network with engineers and decisionmakers. They also expressed a desire to increase pedestrian enforcement activities that support older community members.

Traffic safety education professionals, whose work includes encouraging citizens to walk, expressed appreciation for the diverse set of participants. For example, in Greenbelt, MD, one attendee was blind. According to Karen Haseley, therapeutic recreation supervisor with the Greenbelt Community Center, the participation of a visually impaired person "opened up a whole new perspective relating to disabilities and traffic safety for both the older participants and the professionals."

Beyond the Workshop

The workshops help professionals identify their counterparts in other organizations and foster ongoing collaboration. For example, in Las Vegas a core group of workshop participants continues to meet periodically. In Greenbelt, the city sponsored a second pedestrian workshop for a more general audience, with the goal of raising awareness of pedestrian safety issues among motorists and pedestrians.

To become involved, a community need only download the workshop materials. In addition, NHTSA is conducting a second round of pilot workshops in selected communities to develop technical support and evaluate the program by ensuring that behavior is changed. Each community will define those changes by such steps as implementing improved law enforcement programs, new engineering treatments, or nighttime pedestrian safety improvements (such as pedestrians taking steps to make themselves more visible).

The driver of this car in Seattle, WA, did not yield to the pedestrian who was already in the crosswalk. As part of an enforcement effort (note motorcycle police officers on the right), the driver received a citation for the violation.
The driver of this car in Seattle, WA, did not yield to the pedestrian who was already in the crosswalk. As part of an enforcement effort (note motorcycle police officers on the right), the driver received a citation for the violation.

The workshops themselves are not a solution to pedestrian safety problems. As Haseley says, "Pedestrian pathways and sidewalks are always an issue." But the workshop is the beginning of a solution. The materials are a catalyst that professionals and communities can use to begin taking action to improve pedestrian safety and accessibility. By attending a workshop, professionals can help older people stay safe by helping the presenters apply a comprehensive approach to pedestrian safety.

Placing utility poles such as this one and other obstacles in the sidewalk can force pedestrians into the roadway, creating unsafe situations.
Placing utility poles such as this one and other obstacles in the sidewalk can force pedestrians into the roadway, creating unsafe situations.

Essie Wagner is a program analyst at NHTSA, where she manages older driver and pedestrian safety activities. She has an M.A. in applied psychology, human factors, from George Mason University. Prior to joining NHTSA in 1998, she served as a contractor at FHWA's Turner-Fairbank Highway Research Center.

For more information, contact Essie Wagner at 202-366-0932 or esther.wagner@dot.gov. To receive a CD-ROM of the workshop materials, please go to NHTSA's traffic safety materials catalog (www.nhtsa.dot.gov/people/outreach/media/catalog/Index.cfm), search for Pedestrian Safety Workshop, and follow ordering instructions. An online version of the workshop is available from the Pedestrian and Bicycle Information Center at www.walkinginfo.org.

ResearchFHWA
FHWA
United States Department of Transportation - Federal Highway Administration