Episode 20 – The Aging Population

Topics: The Aging Population, Designing for the Elderly Driver and Pedestrian

Talking Traffic Episode 20 – The Aging Population

Hello and welcome to episode 20 of talking traffic. My name is Bill Ruhsam, and I produce this podcast, and its sister website, Talkingtraffic.org. Today is Tuesday, April 22nd, 2008.

If you are one of the majority of podcast listeners, you will not have much experience with today’s topic. By majority, I mean the 58% of you who are younger than the age of 45. It would be 80% if I went to 55, but we’ll stick with 45. Why? Because today’s topic is the Aging Population and how it effects both the designer, and the user.

By 2020, 21% of the American Population will be 65 or older. That may not seem like a lot, but it’s a growing demographic that will need special attention. As one ages, things begin to not work so well as they did at the ripe age of 18. I’m only 34 and I already know this is truth. Your vision gets a bit worse at night, you can’t roll out of bed quite so easily as you did, getting run over by an opposing soccer player really leaves a mark, things like that. By the time you’re 65, things get much more complicated with restrictions in body motion due to arthritis or other physical ailments, vision going into the crapper, reaction times going down, etc. Not that this happens to EVERYONE, or that I think that age 65 is the time where you need to check yourself into a nursing home, but at least one of these is likely to happen to *you*, so you’d better be prepared.

Designing roads and road accoutrements like signals and signs for the aging population is a challenge. Most engineers are NOT over 65 and may never have had a sore back, much less needed a walker. How do these people put themselves into the mindset of someone with cataracts, or a bum knee? Ford came up with a good solution for their automotive engineers. They built a suit that well, let me just quote from their press release. “The suit — which looks like a cross between a beekeeper’s protective gear and a high-tech astronaut suit — restricts the physical agility of Ford engineers in order to simulate driving capabilities of individuals often 30 years or more older than themselves…” and there’s some more… ” The Third-Age suit is made from materials that add bulk and restrict movement in key areas of the body such as the knees, elbows, stomach and back. Together with gloves which reduce the sense of touch and goggles that simulate cataracts, the Third-Age Suit gives engineers and designers a feel for the needs of an older generation as they design new vehicles.”

I mentioned earlier that I’m 34. Well, I’m 34 but I’ve had some fun back problems including two different bouts with bulging discs in my spine. If you know anyone who’s ever had this, or you’ve had it yourself, you know how difficult it is for someone to maneuver while radiating pain is shooting through your legs. Driving was a chore and toward the end of each of these (just prior to the surgery), I was unable to get into a vehicle at all without serious pain, much less drive one. Since then, thankfully, my physical condition is much improved, but I occasionally do something stupid and pull muscles here and there, which re-enlightens me to the joys that someone 40 years my elder must have on a daily basis just getting around. This knowledge is useful for imagining the difficulty of crossing a street in the face of traffic for someone who can NOT physically walk half as fast as a youngster.

There are things that can be done, though, to make the driving and walking environment more friendly for our older counterparts. For one thing, make the pedestrian signal cycle longer. Currently most pedestrian signals are designed with a 4 feet per second walking speed in mind. That’s 2.7 mph which is a sedate pace. Well, it’s a sedate pace for someone who is well in control of their limbs and without any special handicaps. The latest recommendations are for 3 and a half feet per second, or even 3 feet to accommodate people who just can’t walk very quickly.

Another accommodation is to make important features of the road more visible. Brighter sheeting on the signs which reflect more of the incoming light can help. There’s also a movement underway right now to change the typeface of large guidesigns on the freeways. The new font is called Clearview and it is designed, partially, to reduce “overglow” which is when the white letters blend together into a blur when headlights reflects from them at night. Clearview and highway fonts deserve their own special podcast, though.

You can also make things more visible by widening the stripe on the roadway. When I was in Texas, they were using 4 inch wide striping. Georgia uses five inch. Florida uses a lot of six inch, and you’ll never truly appreciate the wider stripe until you’re driving an unfamiliar road, at night, in the rain.

A quick aside here: I once heard a colleague say that we should be designing our roads for the 75 year old woman driving a rental care in an unfamiliar neighborhood in the rain, at night, on the way back from the bar. There’s some truth there…

Anyway, wider striping makes for more visible striping, without a doubt.

We also need to account for the slower perception and reaction times of older drivers. Unfortunately, as we age, it takes out brains longer to process complicated information. Some of our roadside environments are the very definition of a confusing clutter, and this causes problems. Once the information is processed, then the driver has to react. Now, some studies have shown that the perception reaction time is much increased as a function of age, that is, as you get older the time it takes for you to process then move your foot to the brake, goes up. However, other studies have shown that while perception time goes up with age, reaction time does not, and sometimes even goes down, because the older drivers were operating their vehicles more cautiously. These effects are not linear, and there hasn’t been enough study to nail anything down, but it’s safe to assume the worst and design for it. What this boils down to is that we need to provide an uncluttered roadside environment with only necessary information, such as curve warning signs or stop-ahead signs, and we also need to allow for enough distance in advance of the roadside feature we’re warning drivers about or they’ll be on top of it before they can react. Don’t forget that at 55 mph you’re traveling 81 feet per second and you’ll need 320 feet to stop. That’s a football field and an end zone and you’ll cross it in 4 seconds if you don’t brake. Adequate warning is hugely important.

Soon we all will be older drivers and pedestrians and it only makes sense for us to spend money making sure our road environment keeps us safe and sound.

Thanks for listening to Talking Traffic. This episode is released under a creative commons 3.0 attribution non-commercial no derivatives license. Feel free to hand it out at your nursing home but you old whipper snappers better not sell it or alter it. And please make sure you credit me and talkingtraffic.org. If you have any suggestions for shows or just questions or comments, please send an email to Bill at Talkingtraffic.org or leave a comment on the show notes.

On a more serious note, I harp on road safety a lot here, but it never really drives home until you or someone you know is injured by the 1 ton death-instruments we know as cars. thankfully, no one I know personally has been injured recently, but I came across a collision this weekend while biking in Stone Mountain Georgia. A cyclist and a car had collided (I don’t know what the circumstances were) and the cyclist was being taken to the hospital with a broken leg and possible internal injuries. The lesson is that the traffic laws aren’t just annoyances to be followed when convenient, but also a set of rules and guidelines that if everyone follows we’ll all be safer. Cars, please remember to share the road with cyclists, we aren’t supposed to ride on the stripe on a two lane road. And cyclists, remember that you have to obey all the same traffic laws as cars. I’ve seen enough craziness on both sides.

The music is, as always, by Five Star Fall and can be found on Magnatune.com Until next time, have a great week.

Theme Music: Five Star Fall, Mercurial Girl, Magnatune.com
Ford Motor Company Third Age Suit

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