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Older People Need Safer Streets for True Independence

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

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
" 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

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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