Aging and Driverless Cars

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Many people believe technology will help Boomers age-in-place by automating their homes and assisting with daily routines. But, the most vital technology will not make inroads into the home. This technology will start, and stay, on the road.

The driverless car is coming and it will help people age-in-place, when they need to hang up the keys and stay mobile. But, the technology can do more.

It has unheralded benefits for pedestrians and bicyclists, both young and old. Driverless cars have the potential to reshape suburban strips and streetscapes to be more pedestrian friendly, even if they were originally designed for fast moving cars.

Through countless trials and many years of testing, driverless cars have shown to stop at crosswalks, obey traffic signals, and make safe right-hand turns. Whether they detect a swaggering drunk, a dad pushing a baby carriage or a meandering golf cart– the driverless cars slow down and avoid collisions.

SAFETY FOR PEDESTRIANS

This capability is vital for older people who plan to age-in-place. When people retire, they have more time to take a stroll, and they recognize the benefits of getting regular exercise too. But, there are serious impediments for aging Americans, the so-called Baby Boomers. The first impediment is that neighborhoods in newer subdivisions often lacked sidewalks. The grassy lawns extended right to the street. Even when sidewalks were part of the infrastructure design, they were afforded secondary rights. To reach somewhere, pedestrians maneuver across busy streets and in some cases, across sidewalks intersected by freeway ramps. That does not bode well for the aging Boomer, who wants to take a stroll.

FROGGER REVISITED

A related problem is that most roadways seem to have traffic signals timed for the through-put of vehicles, not pedestrians. An aging population will find it hard to play “frogger”- that is to sprint across a busy, wide intersection as the light changes from red to green.

The number of older people in the U.S. who are hit by cars and die is not large compared to other traffic fatalities, but the number is still too large. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reports a total of 4,735 pedestrian fatalities in 2013. Of that number, 896 were people over age 65 or 19%, and another 10 percent were injured. The number of fatalities is proportionally large, since people over 65 were only 14% of the population. In 2003, the number of older fatalities was even higher- 21%. Previous research has found that for vehicle speeds above 45 mph, pedestrians above age 65 die in about 5 out of 8 crashes. The reason is that older people are frailer, and less likely to recover. It is noteworthy that the engineer identified with advancing the driverless car for Google, Sebastian Thrun, committed his youthful career to this invention after his best friend died in a crash.

MOVING IT TO THE STREETS

In an earlier blog we wrote that Baby Boomers can plan for the future and their retirement by lobbying for the driverless car now. By the time most Boomers need to hang up the car keys, driverless cars could be on the road. The real impediments are the legal warp and insurance vacuums. So, for those with a vision for aging in suburbia, a lobbying effort needs to take place. These vehicles have untold potential to improve personal transportation and ensure mobility for aging suburbanites.

There is a lot to worry about in old age. The driverless car will not solve all problems of transportation, and it will surely introduce new ones. Nonetheless, the driverless car could take some issues off the table when aging-in-place means less worry about reckless drivers speeding through the neighborhood, fewer problems crossing a busy street on foot before the light changes, or attending to grandchildren who might be playing ball, too near the busy road.

 

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