Need for Optimization – in a Variety of Areas

20 May 2021 Infrastructure

In addition to vehicle-specific safety elements and the human factor, road infrastructure also has a key role to play when it comes to improving road safety for senior citizens – whether they are walking, cycling or driving. However, the focus must be on a design that is as self-explanatory, uncomplicated and forgiving of mistakes as possible, ensuring usability by means of regular maintenance, cleaning and snow clearing, and optimizing the infrastructure when weaknesses are detected.

Waitzstraße in Hamburg is a popular shopping precinct – but has also been the primary location for store window accidents in Germany for a number of years. Nowhere else in Germany, and perhaps nowhere else in the world, have so many people – most of them senior citizens – driven their vehicles into the display windows of the nearby stores when trying to park. The list of factors that make the street susceptible to such accidents is long. For instance, the combination of a high number of doctors’ practices and the variety of attractive stores makes this a popular destination for the large number of active senior citizens who live in its catchment area. The many practical parking spaces positioned right in front of the stores also make life a lot easier for people who have trouble walking. At the same time, the busy, one-way street is relatively narrow, so reversing out of the angled parking spaces and onto the road is a highly complex task for persons with limited upper-body mobility, especially with the constant traffic. If they put their car in the wrong gear or hit the gas pedal by mistake (when twisting round to check the road for example), it only takes a moment for the car to end up crashing through a shop window.


In order to reduce the risks created by such situ-ations, structural measures have been implemented in the form of steel bollards with concrete bases to stop cars driving onto the sidewalk. Like many other road accidents involving senior citizens, the incidents on Waitzstraße have drawn a lot of at-tention from the media – which often results in older people being presented as a danger on the road. But as has already been stressed many times in this reports, senior citizens are by no means the primary cause of hazards, and are in fact more likely to be at risk themselves – especially when using the road as pedestrians or cyclists. Nevertheless, such cases clearly demonstrate the role infrastructure plays in accident risks for certain user groups. Optimizations in this area must be approached with the primary objective of preventing accidents; measures that simply reduce the consequences of accidents should only be seen as a temporary solution.


On October 28, 2020, the German Road Safe-ty Council (DVR) issued a ruling containing a number of proposals to improve safety for pedestrians in general, which had been drawn up with the aid of DEKRA and a number of other institutions. These proposals are aimed at pedestrians of all ages, though the DVR stressed that extra care must be taken to ensure that any improvements to road safety are compatible with the requirements of children, older people and people with limited mobility. A “design for everyone” would then automatically benefit all other pedestrians as well. The resolution declared it a fundamental requirement to ensure that the needs of pedestrians be taken into account wherever they are or can be expected to appear. It stated that, particularly on traffic-heavy roads in built-up areas, interconnected and fully accessible pedestrian traffic networks needed to be created, with safe crossings and direct connections that do not require any diversion. It also stated the importance of ensuring that infrastructure is clear and easy to understand – it needs to be as accessible, recognizable, comprehensible and free of visual obstructions as possible, for all road users.
The DVR says that, depending on the prevailing local conditions, light signaling systems, pedestrian crossings (crosswalks), central islands or protruding curbs must be used to make crossings safer. Wherever possible, the crossing facilities need to be designed to ensure that even persons with limited mobility, such as problems with their walking or vision, can cross to the other side of the road safely. In particular, this includes installing tactile elements, sunken curbs, and a high-contrast design for the road environment. Acoustic signals that are suitable for the hard of hearing must be installed at light signals, and the fact that older people walk at slower speeds must be taken into account in traffic light switching cycles as a bare minimum. In addition to this, crossings and sidewalk areas need to be equipped with adequate lighting in order to improve the ability of other road users to see pedestrians in the dark. At the same time, lower driving speeds can help to prevent road accidents, or at least reduce the severity of any injuries suffered as a result of them. Especially for senior citizens and people who have difficulty walking, the green phase and the clearing time, i.e. the time between when the light turns red for pedestrians and when it turns green for road traffic, is too short at many pedestrian lights. Realistic walking speeds for senior citizens must be used as the standard when defining the switching intervals. An additional countdown display for the green light can help senior citizens to decide whether they still have time to cross the road or should wait for the next green phase – a measure that would in fact benefit pedestrians of all ages. In areas with a high volume of pedestrians and cyclists, traffic calming measures should be implemented.


A glimpse at the statistics is all it takes to underline how at risk senior citizens are when they use the road as pedestrians: in both 2019 and 2020, the year of the coronavirus, the 65+ age group accounted for almost 60 percent of all the pedestrians killed in road accidents in Germany. The numbers were similarly high for cyclists in this age group, at 56 percent. As discussed in detail in the 2020 DEKRA Road Safety Report, “Mobility on Two Wheels,” expanding the bicycle path network and maintaining bicycle paths are key factors in reducing the risk of such accidents. While more bicycle paths are in fact being built in many places, not all of these lanes provide their users with the level of protection required. In built-up areas especially, where there is rarely space for a structurally separate bicycle path between buildings, cyclists often have to use exclusive or non-exclusive bicycle lanes that require them to share road space with busy traffic. This means they are only separated from traffic by lines painted on the road surface, if at all, which become very difficult to see when old and faded. As on roads with no bicycle lane, this puts them at great risk of being hit by motor vehicles, especially trucks – or even being forced off the road or run over if the vehicle is turning right. On roads where cyclists have their own bicycle path, the main problems are when there is insufficient separation between this path and the sidewalk, and when driveways are poorly signposted. It is also not uncommon for bicycle paths to come to an end suddenly without any prior warning. In terms of road planning, a great deal of optimization is still required in this area.


One risk to road safety that should not be underestimated is senior citizens driving on the wrong side of the road. In 2012, the German Federal Highway Research Institute (BASt) published a study on “Cars Driving in the Wrong Direction on Freeways”, covering 526 proven cases of cars driving on the wrong side of the freeway between 2005 and 2011. Senior citizens accounted for around a third of the cases where it was possible to retro-spectively determine the age of the driver – a disproportionate amount. The authors of the study claimed that one possible reason for this statistic could be that younger people are more likely than older people to be able to “recognize when they have accidentally set off in the wrong direction and correct this mistake promptly.” Likewise, the authors argued that the link between driving on the wrong side of the road and difficulties with orientation was most common among older people (aged 65 or older) and when driving during the day. They also noted that cognitive and/or physical limitations could often play a role in the case of older people.
The results of the BASt study are also confirmed by similar studies conducted in countries such as the USA and Japan. For example, an investigation into cases of people driving on the wrong side of the road in the US state of Alabama shows that the probability of becoming involved in an accident resulting from driving on the wrong side of the road is almost seven times higher for drivers aged 65 and over than for younger drivers. A study in Japan showed that 52 percent of accidents resulting from driving on the wrong side of the road were caused by drivers aged 65 or older.
Generally speaking, it will never be possible to completely prevent such mistakes from occurring, especially not if drivers deliberately disregard the rules of the road, for example by deliberately driving onto the freeway in the wrong direction at a junction, performing U-turns on one-way carriageways, or driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Nevertheless, it is possible to significantly reduce the risk of people accidentally driving on the wrong side of the road by implementing measures that help drivers to (intuitively) orient themselves correctly and within plenty of time. These measures should thus be taken into account when carrying out new road construction projects and during regular infrastructure inspections. Measures such as direction signs, road signs and/or markings can partially help road users to make sure they are joining roads and freeways in the right direction. Various EU countries already have substantial signage on selected sections of freeway to warn drivers and prevent them from joining the freeway in the wrong direction. Unambiguous, self-explanatory traffic routing and clear and comprehensible signs will be key approaches in reducing the number of people accidentally driving on the wrong side of the road. This means they also provide a way in which we can use infrastructure to reduce risks in general – everywhere and for all road users.


However we choose to get from A to B, the future of mobility and traffic policy is being discussed at length all around the world. The discussion addresses trends and challenges such as social diversification, demographic change and cultural aspects, and looks at their significance for mobility and traffic from a socioecological perspective. One reoccurring question is what would a culture of sustainable mobility with multiple transport options look like for a society that is continuously aging and pluralizing and becoming more diversified.
One of the many problems, particularly in rural areas, is that for many people the concept of mobility has limited practicability unless they have their own car – especially those aged 65 and over. Even in the relatively densely populated countries of western Europe, the public transport services available in rural areas are often insufficient and cannot be relied on to ensure that people can get around independently. Likewise, the bicycle is not a viable alternative for traveling from small communities to the nearest mid-sized town – at least not in mountainous regions or over long distances. However, e-bikes are becoming increasingly popular as an alternative in such areas. In order to guarantee mobility for people without cars in rural, sparsely populated areas, alternative public transport services are thus required. “Flexible” forms of transport and “on-demand” services offer a potential way forward here.
In some cities and regions, the future has already arrived, offering the population “people movers” – driverless shuttle buses (albeit staffed with an assistant for now) that serve a predefined route and allow people to get on or off at set stops like a regular public bus. However, studies on the attitudes towards, acceptance of and intention to use driverless shuttles among older people have thus far shown inconsistent results when it comes to the acceptance of such mobility services. Nevertheless, shuttle services – which in the future could even take people from their front doors to the nearest rail-based public transport station, for example – offer good prospects for keeping people connected to urban spaces, especially for older people living in rural areas. Driverless shuttles that carry people to conventional public transport service stops in rural areas may even prove a more manageable alternative to the current plan: the rapid, comprehensive shift of the multimodal model for road use in and between conurbations toward highly or fully automated driving.


The car plays a dominant role in allowing people to maintain the type of independent mobility that enables them to remain an active part of society well into their old age, especially in industrialized countries. Habit, the convenience and efficiency that this form of mobility offers, and secondary motives such as an enjoyment of driving and the need for individuality and independence all play a key role in the perceived attractiveness of the car for people of all ages. Older people’s sense of satisfaction and perceived quality of life are also closely linked to this.
If we want switching to public transport to become an option, for example, we will need inclusive mobility concepts that incorporate the needs of older people as a matter of course. One of the initiatives that has been important in getting the ball rolling in this regard is the EU-funded TRACY project (Transport Needs for an Aging Society), which ran from 2011 to 2013. The objective of this project was to develop a plan of action that would help to tackle the challenges facing trans-port services in an aging society.
After compiling, analyzing and assessing the existing strategies for all forms of land transport in the EU member states and comparable countries (Switzerland, Norway, the USA, Australia, New Zealand and Japan), the TRACY team drew up proposed solutions for ensuring mobility for older people, and also defined the requirements for a transport system that is suitable for older people. In particular, the project stated that such a system must be easily accessible, easy to reach, available and barrier free, and also comfortable, comprehensible and efficient. It was also deemed import ant that older people feel welcome when using the transport system, and not be treated like a burden or a nuisance. Finally, the other characteristics defined in the report included a high degree of reliability, safety (in terms of both road safety and a sense of personal safety), usability and transparency.
The proposals formulated in the TRACY project can very much be seen as universal design solutions. It was recommended that the following maxim should always be applied when implementing a transport system in any area: even after letting go of automotive mobility, older people have the right to a transport system that helps them to maintain their quality of and satisfaction with life.
Nevertheless, driving will remain a key component of personal mobility for senior citizens in the future, and may even become more important for them. Even as the alternative services on offer continue to improve, the needs of older car drivers must be taken into account when planning and designing infrastructure – to an even greater extent than they are today.