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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, May 5, 2006

You can help keep elderly pedestrians alive

By Barbara Kim Stanton

By now, most people have heard about the 82-year-old Los Angeles woman who was fined $114 because she took too much time to cross the street. The story of Mayvis Coyle is a cautionary tale for Hawai'i, not because the elderly are being ticketed for walking too slowly here, but because our state is one of the most dangerous places in the country to be an elderly pedestrian.

If you compare pedestrian fatality rates between Hawai'i and the nation from 1996 through 2003, you'll find that we rank at or above the national level almost every year often significantly so.

Throw age into the mix and the figures are startling.

According to the state Department of Transportation, pedestrians over the age of 50 represented 66 percent of the people killed in traffic accidents in the City and County of Honolulu from 1996 to 2003. The proportion of elderly citizens killed in intersections is similarly high.

These statistics are especially disturbing in view of two significant trends, the first of which is the aging of Hawai'i's population. Fourteen years from now, a quarter of our population will be over the age of 60, up from about 17 percent today. As our longevity increases, the ranks of our oldest and most vulnerable members are the fastest growing of all. By 2020, 32 percent of Hawai'i's older adults (age 60-plus) will be 75 and older.

Another meaningful trend is that walking is vital to continued health and our ability to get around, especially as we age. Today, more than half of older Americans make walking a regular activity, and a recent survey by the Surface Transportation Policy Project revealed that more than half of all Americans would rather walk than drive to their destinations.

What can we do to preserve and celebrate our fundamental right to walk safely along our streets and roadways? We can start by recognizing that pedestrians and motorists are mutually responsible for ensuring the livability of our communities.

To drive home the importance of this shared responsibility, AARP Hawai'i is sponsoring a statewide community service project on Thursday. On that day, teams of volunteers on O'ahu, Maui, Hawai'i and Kaua'i will assess the "walkability" of Hawai'i's busiest streets including areas identified by the Department of Transportation as the most dangerous for pedestrians.

Each team will record its observations on standardized audit forms. Completed forms will be collected at debriefing parties co-sponsored by the state Department of Health at sites on all islands. These sessions will allow volunteers to share their observations with elected officials, traffic engineers and law enforcement officers.

This National Day of Service project is aimed at raising awareness of how motorists and pedestrians can coexist safely by identifying structural and behavioral changes that may help make neighborhoods safer for people of all ages. Examples include modifying signals to allow for easier crossing and educating pedestrians on steps they can take to decrease the risk of personal injury.

The project is being held in cooperation with county officials on all islands as well as the Department of Transportation's Walk Wise Hawai'i program, a public education program to promote safe-crossing techniques and driver awareness.

AARP is also incorporating pedestrian safety information into its popular Driver Safety Program in Hawai'i. The Driver Safety Program provides people over the age of 50 with the skills to be mobile and independent as they age.

AARP believes that greater public awareness is only one of the ways to address this complex problem that claimed nearly 5,000 lives nationwide in 2003 alone. State and local governments can and should do more to ensure pedestrian safety as well.

Some communities have moved to enhance pedestrian facilities. Salt Lake City, for example, made major capital improvements (crosswalks, improved signal timing and pedestrian signage) that resulted in a 44 percent reduction in pedestrian deaths. Other communities are pursuing "complete streets" policies, which acknowledge the need to invest in other modes of travel pedestrian, bicycle and transit to complement the dominant automobile. Additional approaches include improvements to sidewalks, crosswalks, benches (where pedestrians can rest), road design, signalization and traffic monitoring. Such enhancements will benefit us all whether we travel on foot or in a vehicle.

Whatever we do to make our streets safer, we need to bear in mind that the decision not to drive or lack of access to a motorized vehicle shouldn't result in isolation. Each of us whether we're an older person with limited mobility, a parent juggling groceries while holding the hand of a toddler, or an office worker on crutches can benefit from improvements in pedestrian safety.

Let's tackle this problem one step at a time.

Anyone interested in taking part in AARP Hawai'i's National Day of Service project is invited to call 545-6003 for more information.

Barbara Kim Stanton is the state director of AARP Hawai'i. She wrote this commentary for The Advertiser.