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Sustainable Streets Teaches Seniors Pedestrian Safety  

By Ann K. Williams
Lookout Staff

April 6, 2011 -- Santa Monica had 86 accidents involving pedestrians last year and two pedestrian fatalities since December.

It's dangerous out there, especially for seniors, and some might wonder if anything can be done to make things safer for people who walk the city's streets.

Actually, quite a bit can, according to Sustainable Streets, a nonprofit organization that encourages “active transportation” like walking and biking.

The group presented its findings to 15 seniors who showed up at the Ken Edwards Center Tuesday morning.

Walking is good for a lot of reasons, workshop facilitator Alison Kendall wanted her audience to know, and not just because it's the ultimate green mode of transportation.

Seniors stand to benefit from the increased mobility and balance walking brings them. It's also proven to increase longevity as it helps stave of depression, heart disease and diabetes.

But the same population is far more likely to be victims of traffic fatalities.

Of Santa Monica's 35 pedestrian fatalities from 2000 through 2010, 17 were over 65 years old, and of those, 12 were 80 or older, according to Santa Monica Police Department Investigator Chris Dawson.

The disquieting statistics have three causes, said Kendall: Pedestrian behavior, driver behavior, and the walking environment.

While many of the same directions we all learned as children still apply to senior walkers, there are some additional caveats for them, she said.

Impaired vision and hearing, coupled with slower walking speeds and cognitive delays make it harder for seniors navigate traffic.

As one participant quipped, “Streets are a lot wider than when I was younger.”

A signal time that makes sense for a 30-year-old is far too short for those over 70, an observation that rang true for many in the workshop.

By the time the red flashing hand signal comes on, many seniors are just approaching the middle of the intersection, causing some to freeze and even turn around and go back, a move that's much more dangerous than continuing on, Kendall warned.

But the danger is highest before they get that far, she said. Stepping off the curb is actually the riskiest part of the crossing.

Drivers often pay more attention to other vehicular traffic than to pedestrians, and walkers often have a hard time seeing around cars that have inched forward in hopes of a quick turn.

Kendall urged seniors to look up and keep their “heads on a swivel,” hanging back until they're sure the coast is really clear.

Crosswalks are no guarantee of safety, she said. People are often lulled into a false sense of security because they think they have the right-of-way.

“I don't want to get hit out of principal,” said Ron Durgin, President of Sustainable Streets. “Just because I have the right-of-way doesn't mean I'm going to take it all the time.”

And parked cars can't be assumed to be a safe bet. Listen for engine noises, look for parking lights and people in the drivers' seats, Kendall said. It's all part of “defensive walking.”

Driveways are especially hazardous, as often both the pedestrian and driver can't see what's going on. It's another situation where the walker should hang back, but avoid hugging the wall, staying closer to the street where the driver has a better chance of seeing her.

Be especially careful at the driveways to city parking lots downtown, where drivers “come barrelling out,” warned Principal Transportation Engineer Sam Morrissey.

Wear light, bright colors, especially at night, and, it should go without saying, don't even think about jaywalking.

It's not all on the pedestrians though. There's a lot the city traffic engineers can do.

Well marked, highly visible crosswalks with median “pedestrian refuges” in the middle of wider streets help a lot.

And smooth, obstruction-free sidewalks with wide buffer zones between sidewalk and street are safe and inviting to seniors who may be especially intimidated by traffic roaring by right next to them.

No right turn on red intersections, slower speed zones, speed humps and countdown signals are all planning improvements that can make things a lot safer.

The city has already expanded curbs into the intersection at many corners, moving parking away from the corner. This both slows traffic down and improves visibility.

There's more that can be done, but the city can't do it all without the help of the workshop participants and their friends, Kendall said.

That's why she handed out the following numbers:

To report speeding drivers, drivers failing to yield, driving under the influence and distracted driving, call Traffic Enforcement, Santa Monica Police Department at 310 458-8993.

To call about signal timing, crosswalks, signs, markings or parking meters, call the Transportation Engineer at 310 458-8520.

And for general transportation safety issues, call the Transportation Management Division at 310 458-8291.

For more about the workshop and about Sustainable Streets, go to


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