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Driving-Dependent, Living Independent
Today's seniors are more dependent on cars, travel further by car and use public transportation less. Most older Americans live in low-density areas where driving is highly essential—30 percent reside in central cities, 44 percent live in the suburbs and 26 percent make their home in rural areas. And more and more seniors live alone, responsible for their own transport.

"There's been a focus on what we do with older drivers in our aging society and keeping older motorists driving as long as possible," notes David Harkey. "But we can't wait until older motorists are unable to drive and then look at how to change things."

The situation looks grim for older persons who become unable to drive. Neighborhood streets increasingly transform into high-speed arterials. Streets have become less friendly to seniors and other pedestrians. Citizens over the age of 65 continue to have the highest pedestrian fatality rates.

Thanks to a lack of reliable public transit and streets that are easy and safe to cross and walk along to nearby destinations, many seniors who do not drive must depend on families, neighbors, friends or expensive taxi services for rides—or remain homebound.

Thinking ahead, younger seniors like Ina Evans have already made walking and public transit a part of their daily lives, combining these modes of transport with driving. But it's up to designers and engineers to help instill these habits by designing proactively to accomodate the natural changes brought on by aging.

"If we try to improve design for seniors too late it's not successful. Routines are in place that become very hard to break," Harkey says. "When seniors reach the age where driving is no longer an option, they should have already learned to also use other modes of transportation and made a habit of using them. They'll be healthier for it, too."

Effects of Aging
Since the days of Peter Pan, people all over the world have been searching for the proverbial Fountain of Youth. Today we try to postpone the aging process with exercise, make-up, plastic surgery, special diets and supplements, and—if you're Michael Jackson, sleeping in pressurized oxygen chambers. Certainly older Americans are more health-conscious than ever before. But we can't put off aging forever. When designing for the older generation, engineers must consider a whole range of conditions.

In general, the aging process causes a deterioration of physical, cognitive, and sensory abilities. According to researchers at the Federal Highway Administration, the NHTSA, and the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center, problems experienced by older pedestrians can include in varying degree:
    • Decreased visual acuity, poor central vision, reduced ability to scan the environment

    • A reduced range of joint mobility

    • Reduced ability to detect and localize different sounds

    • Reduced endurance

    • Reduced tolerance for extreme temperature and environment

    • Decreased agility, balance, and stability

    • Inability to quickly avoid dangerous situations

    • Slower reflexes

    • Excessive trust that other motorists will obey traffic laws

    • Impaired judgment, confidence, and decision making abilities

What's more, seniors are more likely to experience restrictive disabilities than other age groups. In 1994-5, 52.5% of the elderly reported having one or more disabling conditions. And disabilities take a heavier toll on the very old. Nearly three quarters of the over 80 population reported having one or more disabilities.

next page:  New technologies, curb designs, and refugee areas...

Designing for the Visually Impaired

Within the visually impaired community and the transportation policymakers, there is plenty of dissent regarding pedestrian design.

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