NEW YORK — Too many older adults put their lives at the mercy of two- and four-wheeled vehicles when performing an activity they are repeatedly advised to do: walking.
Walking is a necessity and a health-promoting activity for many of the more than 41 million Americans 65 and older. It helps maintain bone and muscle strength, mobility, agility and independence. It can help prevent, delay or control many chronic ailments. And it fosters social interactions and a higher quality of life.
However, as the number of older adults rises and many stop driving, more are being mowed down by vehicles. Too often, the simple act of stepping off the curb can put an older adult’s life at risk.
As noted in an excellent article in the December issue of AARP Bulletin, people 65 and older make up 13 percent of the population but account for a disproportionate number of pedestrian deaths (20 percent in 2012), and suffer more severe injuries in nonfatal accidents.
Drivers are not the only ones at fault. They share the blame with cyclists, designers of streets and pedestrians themselves. On a recent fall night at a major New York intersection — West 57th Street and Seventh Avenue — I had to intercept an older woman with a cane as she started to cross this big avenue when the traffic light countdown flashed a mere six seconds.
“Oh, I thought it said nine seconds,” she remarked when I yanked her back. But even if it had, nine seconds was hardly enough to assure her safe passage to the opposite corner at any time of day, and especially not in the dark.
Many factors increase the risk for older pedestrians. They may not see or hear as well, think as clearly or move as quickly as they once did. Yet like the woman I restrained, some fail to make appropriate accommodations for these declines.
Even those who remain mentally aware and physically able well into their Medicare years can become victims when drivers are careless. At 73, I nearly became a traffic statistic one night in late October as I crossed a Brooklyn street with the walk sign clearly in my favor. An overly aggressive driver gunned the accelerator to turn left ahead of coming traffic and came so close to hitting me that I could pound on the hood of his car.
He was clearly unaware — or chose to ignore — the traffic law in New York, and nearly every other community, that gives pedestrians in a crosswalk the right of way. In many places, including New York, drivers are not supposed to attempt to turn around pedestrians until they have walked at least halfway across the street
Yet twice last month, just as I had started across a neighborhood street in broad daylight, cars sped around the corner when the light changed, forcing me to jump back. At corners where cars can turn, I now always look first to see if one is likely to turn into the street I’m about to cross.
And as many experts have noted, most communities were built for easy vehicular access, not pedestrian safety, which is only now being addressed, almost as an afterthought. Wide two-way streets, often with multiple lanes, can make it impossible for an older person to cross on one light, especially when drivers making turns (assuming they see someone crossing) fail to yield right of way.
Although I know it’s wrong, I’ve begun to agree with an acquaintance of my vintage who feels safer crossing in the middle of the block, where she can see cars coming from all directions, including those turning at the corner. And I also often feel safer crossing against a red light when I can see that the coast is clear because no vehicles can turn and cut me off.
But I’m extremely nervous at intersections where there are no traffic lights, as is true on many residential streets and throughout the town of Woodstock, New York, where I spend most of the summer. True, Woodstock has a few stop signs and pedestrian crosswalks marked by ladder-style white lines across the road with signs saying it is a state law to yield to pedestrians. But drivers may not see the lines or the signs. Even if they do, they may fail to notice pedestrians crossing or waiting to cross.
Street crossings have become especially dicey in cities like New York that have had a huge increase in cyclists. Many on bikes ride as if being chased by a mad dog. Intent on making lights and avoiding mashups with cars, speeding cyclists can easily miss seeing pedestrians in or about to enter the roadway, and the reflexes of an older person may not be quick enough to avert a run-in.
Pedestrians too must learn to be on the lookout for cyclists (as well as vehicles that run red lights) even when they are crossing with the light in their favor. There are now two-way bike lanes on some one-way streets that add to the challenge.
It’s also a good idea to look both ways even when crossing a one-way street. Cyclists may be riding against traffic, cars may be backing up, and now and then a vehicle turns the wrong way onto a one-way street.
Too often I’ve seen older people starting to cross when the “Don’t Walk” light is flashing; others tend to hesitate at corners too long after they have the opportunity to cross.
To be sure, many traffic signals are too short to ensure a safe crossing by an older adult, but when the countdown says how much time is left, it makes sense to heed it and be realistic about how long it will take you to cross before the light turns red. Consider timing your walk across frequently used streets and refrain from stepping off the curb unless there’s enough time left to reach the other side safely.
After dark, consider wearing reflective clothing or a safety vest or attaching a flashing bicycle light to yourself so you’ll be more visible to drivers. And if you have any kind of disability that can make street crossing a challenge, don’t hesitate to ask a more able pedestrian to ensure your safe passage. The cliche holds: The life you save may very well be your own.
Jane Brody is an American author on science and nutrition topics who reports for The New York Times as its “Personal Health” columnist.