Are older people unsafe walkers?

4 Nov 2016

A lot of the literature around older walkers suggests they are less safe than younger people. They make poor judgements in crossing the road, because of failing eyesight and slower speed of thought and movement.  The conventional wisdom says they make mistakes and get hit by cars as a result.

Here at Victoria Walks, we’ve never been entirely convinced by that argument. Now a new report from Austroads is leading us to question it even more.

Older Road Users: Emerging Trends, looks at a whole lot of issues with older people, not only as pedestrians but as drivers.  But it was the data on pedestrian crash rates, set out in the table above, that caught our eye the most.

This shows that for pedestrian crashes, those aged 75 or more actually have a lower crash rate per head of population than those aged under 60 in five of the seven jurisdictions. Of the other two, the crash rates are equal in Tasmania and only in Victoria is someone over 74 more likely to be hit than someone under 60. 

Just to complicate things, the crash rate typically drops in the 60-74 age group before rising again in the 75+ age group.  Perhaps over the age of 75 age related risk factors and reduced agility may start to make it more difficult for walkers to avoid a collision. But their likelihood of being in a crash is still generally lower than people under 60.

We’ve long suspected that the big issue causing older people to be over-represented in crash statistics is their frailty – when they are hit, they are more likely to be injured and take longer to recover. The report tends to confirm this. Only 3.2% of 0-59 year olds involved in a crash as a pedestrian die, compared to 5.5% of those aged 60-74 and 9.0% of people aged 75+.

Overall, this suggests that older people are generally not at higher risk of being hit when they are walking, but they are much more likely to be injured or killed if they are hit (to be clear that's our conclusion, the report doesn't discuss this). 

Note also that age might perhaps be relatively unimportant to crash risk compared to the spatial context – there is a big variation between states.  Whether that is because of genuine variation between states or differences in data collection, or both, is not clear.

The recommendations of the report are generally positive and lend support to the recommendations in our Safer Road Design for Older Pedestrians report.  The key recommendations for pedestrians support:

  • Road infrastructure that “protects pedestrians in areas where there is a high risk of pedestrian crashes, such as areas of high pedestrian activity, and especially areas frequented by older pedestrians.”
  •  “…setting speed limits in areas of high pedestrian activity, especially areas frequented by older pedestrians, with reference to the high injury risk of older pedestrians.”
  • “…reductions in intersection complexity, including the elimination of right turns requiring gap acceptance decisions.”
  • “…improving safety at intersections through reductions in speed limits and the use of traffic calming measures such as plateaus.”

The report also confirms that “standard crossing times at pedestrian lights are insufficient to accommodate for the slower walking speed of older people.” This clearly backs the recommendation of Safer Road Design for Older Pedestrians, that time should be extended or technology used that can adjust to the actual person on the crossing.

And finally, ladies, prepare your high-horse for mounting. For road crashes generally (so mostly drivers), a person “whose movements or decisions in some way contributed to the crash occurring” is about 1.5 times more likely to be a man than a woman, irrespective of age.  The report does not attempt to explain that difference.  It is likely partly due to men driving more than women, but some researchers argue that men take more risks - read more.