At the recent 15th annual Congress on Intelligent Transport Systems, I delivered a simple message: People in a rapidly aging society need to feel safe while traveling throughout their communities. Experts who attended—global experts in using new technologies to design 21st-century vehicles and transportation networks for greater efficiency and safety—agreed that consumers could use help in getting around safely, and they demonstrated technologies that promise to do just that.
There is a car of the future that will provide improved safety for all occupants. Most of us know that seat belts and air bags have made cars safer for everyone. But automobile engineers are now designing the next generation of devices to better protect people of all ages and sizes. Fatalities for those age 70+ are higher than average because their bodies are more fragile and less likely to recover from crash-related traumas. So, improved restraint systems will benefit older adults.
Vehicle technologies are also evolving rapidly. Today, antilock brakes and electronic stability controls help many drivers to stop more quickly, prevent rollovers, and better manage difficult road conditions. Slowly coming on the market are backup cameras, light-sensitive rearview mirrors, headlights that "follow" the road ahead, blind-spot indicators, and lane-deviation devices that "tell" drivers they are crossing into another lane. These devices assist drivers in better navigating the road and, therefore, preventing crashes.
But the car of the future will be loaded with even more technology to get people to their destinations safely. Future car designs—some as early as 2012—will have sensors that "know" when a vehicle in front of you begins to slow. Your vehicle then automatically starts breaking, so that an accident is more easily avoided. A similar device will "talk" to traffic signals and start slowing your vehicle when it senses a red light ahead; another will brake your car when you are turning left, and it can "see" a possible collision with an oncoming vehicle.
After checking out these new technologies, I'm now convinced that they will literally make decisions to help drivers avoid crashes and save lives. For families concerned about the safety of older family members who are still driving, these safety innovations will bring more peace of mind.
At the center of the Congress' exhibition floor stood a 1958 Chevrolet Brookwood station wagon in AARP's exhibit space. The vehicle attracted a lot of attention and reminded everyone how far technology has progressed in the last half-century. The Jetson-like technologies I’ve described were inconceivable 50 years ago, but they promise to help us all stay safer as we travel in our cars to work, shop, visit doctors, attend places of worship, and share time with our family and friends.
Most of us use our cars to get around, and we generally do so because we want to or have to. The majority of Americans live in suburbs, automobile-dependent communities where you really do need a car to get where you want to go. Did you know that car trips represent more than 90 percent of the annual trips made by Americans? And consider the realities of our aging society: By 2030, over 78 million boomers will be 65+, and research shows that men will outlive their driving abilities by six years and women by 10.
After cars, walking is the most popular method of travel in the United States. And too often, walking is not easy or safe. A recent AARP poll of age 50+ persons showed that 47 percent don't feel safe crossing the street. And here is why: Traffic signals at intersections are geared toward moving traffic as quickly as possible. This is a great way to ease traffic congestion, but it can put pedestrians in peril, because they may not have enough time to safely cross the street.
We can use technology in the following ways to make communities more walkable:
• First, we start by urging traffic engineers to adjust traffic signal timing to allow people more time to cross the street. People of different ages and abilities walk at different rates of speed. By adding more time for crossing, traffic signals actually protect pedestrians by stopping traffic. Simply adding five seconds to the crossing time can make a major difference.
• Also, we can add countdown signals at intersections. These clocks show pedestrians how much time remains (second by second) to safely cross. When it is safe to cross, a white hand appears in the box; when the countdown reaches the minimum crossing time, a red hand indicates that it is no longer safe to carry on. This technology has been refined over the years and can make a major difference in intersection safety.
• Lastly, I've seen intersections that have audible signals to prompt pedestrians. Everyone benefits from these devices, but they are particularly essential for the visually impaired.
The AARP survey also showed that almost 50 percent of those polled did not have adequate sidewalks in their neighborhoods. I'll bet many of those people live in the suburbs, where cars rule and walkers are true pioneers. Along most suburban strips, you'll see "goat paths" where people have been walking. These "pioneers" are creating their own walking environment without the aid of public sidewalks. Redesigning suburban neighborhoods to include sidewalks with well marked crosswalks and appropriate signal timing can make a real difference in the feel and safety of these places. Many families are realizing that the mean streets of suburbia are yet another issue for their aging parents.
Public transportation, the least used way for people 50+ get where they want to go, also benefits greatly from technology. Today, it may not be easy for some older adults to ride the bus; it can take a long time, and it can be confusing. Technology can help:
• Imagine being at the bus stop and knowing in real time what your bus’s arrival time is.
• Imagine that your bus could get places faster by talking to traffic signals, telling them to stay green, so that the bus can get passengers to their destinations on time.
• Imagine that your bus actually "talks" and tells you what the next stop is.
All of the technologies I have described are making the travel environment safer for everyone. And every day, new technologies are moving from development to design to market. We all need to stay connected to the places where our friends and family are, and where we do business and enjoy ourselves. Technology promises to make people safer in their cars, on foot, and when using public
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