Making Streets Safer: UMass Boston Research Team Studies Car Crashes Injuring Older Pedestrians

By Taryn Hojlo

Walking activities are normally good for older adults. One rare but dangerous exception: Car crashes that involve pedestrians.

This is a growing problem. The number of pedestrian fatalities increased by 37 percent across the United States between 2008 and 2017, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Nearly half of pedestrian fatalities in 2017 were age 50 or older.

A research team from UMass Boston’s Gerontology Institute recently studied risks to older pedestrians in Massachusetts and to what extent they could be prevented. Their report included specific suggestions for improving older pedestrians safety. It was prepared in cooperation with MassDOT, Office of Transportation Planning, and the U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration.

“People are encouraged to walk for exercise for their health and for the good of the environment,” said Elizabeth Dugan a gerontology associate professor who led the research team. “But if older pedestrians are getting hit by cars, we have a major problem.”

The team analyzed statewide crash data collected over a ten-year period, as well as community indicators identified in the 2018 Massachusetts Healthy Aging Data Report.

There were 4,472 reported motor vehicle crashes involving pedestrians age 55 or older between 2006 and 2015. The most frequently cited causes — all of which were attributable to the driver — were visibility issues, inattention, and failure to yield right of way.

The top four communities with the highest rates of older pedestrian collisions were Cambridge, Fall River, Lynn, and New Bedford. Researchers found that older adults between the ages of 55 and 74 experienced an increase in pedestrian crash rates.

Older pedestrians were most often struck while walking in the road and at intersection crosswalks, particularly during rush hour. Seasonal changes also seemed to influence the likelihood of a collision. Higher crash rates occurred during winter months when light is lowest, there are more hours of darkness, and sidewalks may be obstructed or slippery due to snow.

The researchers were able to incorporate data from the Massachusetts Healthy Aging Data Report supported by the Tufts Health Plan Foundation, and found communities with higher rates of disability and higher proportions of racial and ethnic minority residents were also found to be at an increased risk of accidents involving older pedestrians. Areas with a greater number of “cultural amenities,” such as libraries and fitness centers, also saw higher collision rates.

Researchers believe this trend is likely due to the increased foot traffic experienced near these locations. Communities lacking dementia-friendly amenities were likewise negatively impacted.

The report’s recommendations to address risks to older pedestrians included:

  • Convening stakeholders to raise awareness of safety issues and spur innovation to address them.
  • Raising awareness about older pedestrian safety, possibly including a public campaign during winter months when pedestrian crashes are most frequent.
  • Urging municipalities to increase the safety and visibility of crosswalks to counteract problems related to a lack of driver attention.
  • If possible, prioritize infrastructure improvements, such as sidewalks and crosswalks, in communities with the highest risks.

“Improving the safety of older pedestrians requires the effort of all sectors of society,” said Dugan. “Communities should be encouraged to think creatively and consider new ideas when it comes to the safety needs of pedestrians. Making walking safer for older pedestrians will benefit pedestrians of all ages.”

The older pedestrian research team included UMass Boston gerontology professor Nina Silverstein and Frank Porell, a gerontology professor emeritus. It also included two postdoctoral fellows, Shuangshuang Wang and Chae Man Lee.



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