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More than 30,000 Americans are killed on our nation’s roadways each year and far more are injured. Older road users, because of their increased frailty, are overrepresented in both vehicle and pedestrian crash fatalities. While adults 65 and older comprised less than 13 percent of the population, they were represented in 15 percent of vehicle fatalities and 19 percent of pedestrian fatalities in 2008. An older vehicle occupant is 18 percent more likely to die in a crash than someone under the age of 65. More staggering, an older pedestrian is 61 percent more likely to die than a younger pedestrian.
To address fatalities on our roads a multi-pronged, evidence-based approach is needed. This includes new infrastructure and vehicle design, adequate law enforcement, and a cultural shift within our transportation institutions, as well as a change in public attitudes toward road safety. There is a growing movement worldwide, referred to as “toward zero deaths” (TZD), which believes that even one death on the roadways is unacceptable. Through the TZD approach, ambitious yet achievable interim road safety targets are set in order to improve performance and accountability. Several European countries have implemented national strategies, set targets, monitored progress, and made impressive strides in reducing the toll of crashes. Between 1970 and 2008, the Netherlands decreased road fatalities by nearly 80 percent and injury crashes by 60 percent. Today a pedestrian is six times more likely to die in a motor vehicle crash in the US than in the Netherlands.
In the US there is no national TZD strategy in place; however, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) has embarked on a TZD initiative and is in the process of developing a national strategy aimed at significantly improving highway safety through engineering, enforcement, education, emergency medical service (EMS), public health, communications, and other efforts. The national strategy will be used as a framework by safety stakeholder organizations to enhance current national, state, and local safety planning and implementation efforts. The intent is to develop a mechanism for bringing together a wider range of highway safety stakeholders to work toward institutional and cultural changes. A state example of this approach is the Minnesota TZD strategy, which achieved its 2008 goal of no more than 500 traffic fatalities statewide. The strategy involves a partnership of state agencies and stakeholder institutions whose initiatives include activities such as speed enforcement, public education, crash analysis research, expansion of the state network of trauma hospitals, and a safe rides program to assist individuals and communities in establishing alternative transportation programs.
The Safe, Accountable, Flexible and Efficient Transportation Equity Act—A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA—LU) elevated the HSIP as a core federal-aid program, and authorized about $1.3 billion annually (2006 through 2009) for infrastructure-related highway safety improvements. Funds may be used for public road, bicycle and pedestrian facilities projects including construction and improvements on rural roads. The HSIP aims to significantly reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries on all public roads. It includes a research and demonstration program to improve traffic safety for older drivers and creates a new program to improve traffic signs and pavement markings. This federal effort is complemented by the efforts of state DOTs to develop Strategic Highway Safety Plans (SHSPs) as required by the HSIP. The SHSP is a data-driven, four- to five-year comprehensive plan that establishes statewide goals, objectives, and key emphasis areas and integrates the four “E”s—engineering, education, enforcement, and emergency medical services—into highway planning.
The strength of each SHSP lies in its ability to help in identifying and analyzing safety data as a means of prioritizing safety efforts, evaluating results, and updating the plan. In 2010, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials made available a new tool, the Highway Safety Manual that will help traffic engineers determine the most effective safety improvements. The manual allows safety to be quantitatively evaluated alongside other transportation performance measures such as traffic operations, environmental impacts, and construction costs, helping transportation planners, engineers, and policymakers improve performance and accountability.
Excessive motor vehicle speed is a factor in almost one-third of all fatal crashes and represents approximately $28 billion in economic costs each year. It is also a deterrent to walking, bicycling, and transit use, thereby reducing the overall livability of a neighborhood. Speed management can be accomplished through setting appropriate speed limits for the road design, roadside risks, traffic volume, and mix and presence of non-motorized users. Enforcement of those speed limits such as automated enforcement through cameras that capture speeding and red light running are cost-effective means of reducing road crashes. Studies indicate that automated speed enforcement results in an approximately 2 to 15 percent reduction in speed and a 9 to 50 percent reduction in crashes. The implementation of automated enforcement programs usually requires enabling legislation or code amendments. Speed management through road design can serve to change driver behavior without enforcement measures. Traffic calming measures can be particularly useful where enforcement of speed control laws may be ineffective. Design features used to mark transition zones on busy roads approaching towns and villages can influence drivers’ speed.
Slower-speed zones and modern roundabouts are examples of features that are useful in reducing the speed of vehicles. Several US cities, and numerous European ones, have reconstructed streets to slow vehicular traffic to address the inherent vulnerability of pedestrians and bicyclists. A pedestrian’s chance of death can be reduced from 85 percent crossing a road where vehicles travel 40 mph to only 5 percent for 20 mph roads. Older pedestrians because of their increased fragility particularly benefit from low-speed environments. Proper signal timing, roundabouts, narrower travel lanes, raised medians and street trees are all ways to reduce travel speed without compromising road capacity.
Much of the nation’s work on road safety has focused on the needs of drivers and passengers of motor vehicles, but the notion of planning for “complete streets” addresses safety from the perspective of all users. “Complete streets” are those designed and operated for safe, comfortable, and convenient travel by pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists, and transit riders of all ages and abilities. Complete streets programs are augmented by transportation networks that provide a variety of services, thus allowing consumers a broad choice in how to travel safely and in line with their personal preferences, schedule, and budget. The focus of complete streets initiatives has been on changing transportation agency policies and procedures so that these multimodal accommodations become a routine part at the project-development stage.
It is Department of Transportation (DOT) policy to incorporate safe and convenient walking and bicycling facilities into all surface transportation projects, unless exceptional circumstances exist. The Safe, Accountable, Flexible and Efficient Transportation Equity Act—A Legacy for (SAFETEA—LU) not only authorizes funding for pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure and safety projects, and calls for the consideration of bicyclists and pedestrians in long-range transportation planning but also encourages diverse modes of travel. Additionally, the Safe Routes to School program encourages walking and bicycling to and from school and its grants are focused on strategies that improve safety, reduce traffic, and curb air pollution around schools. More importantly, these benefits will extend to all segments of the population who walk and bike near project-area schools.
The design of many communities does not encourage walking or bicycling, nor does it provide for the safety of people who travel by foot or bicycle. Residential areas are often far from commercial facilities, prohibiting pedestrian access to goods and services. Moreover, there are other design features that may make travel by foot difficult especially for older adults such as fast-paced crosswalk signals and poorly-maintained sidewalks with cracks and dips.
Ensuring safe pedestrian travel also requires that streets, intersections, curbs, and other infrastructure comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the Public Rights-of-Way Accessibility Guidelines. The 2005 draft guidelines address a variety of issues, including crosswalks, curb ramps, street furnishings, signals, parking, access for blind pedestrians, wheelchair access to on-street parking, and constraints posed by space limitations, roadway designs, and terrain. The goal should be to make transportation facilities and services accessible and safe for all people, including older people and people with disabilities.
The walking speed set for signal operations is one of the most important design and operational parameters affecting pedestrian safety. In December 2009 the FHWA approved an update to the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices (MUTCD) that acknowledges the slower pace of older pedestrians. The National Committee on UTCD now recommends that signals give pedestrians seven seconds to leave the curb and proposes an assumed walking speed from curb to curb of 3.5 feet per second and a maximum walking speed of 3 feet per second. States have two years to adopt the new or revised national MUTCD as the standard for traffic control devices in the state or bring their state MUTCD into substantial conformance with the national standard.
Safety can be enhanced through signs that give adequate advance warning, larger signs with more legible fonts, more reflective sign materials (particularly on entrance and exit ramps), standardized and retro-reflective road markings, better road and sign maintenance, and better-illuminated highways. Skid-resistant pavement at high-risk locations (curves, intersections, bridge decks, and pedestrian and school crossings) has been found to reduce crashes cost-effectively by more than 30 percent. The FHWA has developed guidelines for road and highway design to improve safety for older drivers. They are outlined in the Highway Design Handbook for Older Drivers and Pedestrians (FHWA Handbook), which contains recommended treatments for signs, pavement marking, and other traffic control devices.
Proper design and regulation of intersections can reduce the danger of crashes occurring during left turns (the highest-risk situation for older drivers). These improvements help lower crash rates and health care and repair costs, which result in reduced auto insurance rates. According to the FHWA, roundabouts can reduce fatal crashes by 90 percent and injury crashes by 75 percent compared with conventional intersections. The increased safety of roundabouts is derived in large part from the elimination of left turns and the overall reduction of vehicle speed in the intersection. Several states, including Alaska, Arizona, Minnesota, New York, and Washington, have replaced many conventional intersections with roundabouts. The FHWA handbook includes roundabouts as an appropriate design treatment to accommodate older drivers and pedestrians safely.
Intersection design must address the safety of all users, particularly in urban areas. A 2008 study by AARP’s Public Policy Institute found that several other FHWA-recommended intersection treatments, while helpful to older drivers on rural higher-speed roads, conflict with the needs of pedestrians and bicyclists in urban areas.
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