Seniors in Texas and around the US walk for many of their trips; it’s their third most common travel mode, after driving or riding in a car. Seniors walk, moreover, for a greater percentage of their trips as they age. But walking is becoming more dangerous every year for all pedestrians. In 2018 pedestrian deaths accounted for more than 19% of all U.S. traffic fatalities—although car trips far outnumbered walking trips. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data show that U.S. pedestrian fatalities are soaring, particularly for seniors. Total pedestrian death rates grew substantially faster than the growth of the population from 2009 to 2018; in that period the entire population of the US increased a little under 7% but the pedestrian death rate went up an astonishing 53%. The growth in pedestrian deaths among seniors, however, dwarfs the rates for the rest of the population; the number of men over 65+, for example, who died in a pedestrian crash went up 73% in that ten year period.
Senior death rates in other types of traffic crashes have also gone up, unfortunately, but not in the dramatic way seen in pedestrian statistics. Pedestrian death rates among seniors went up roughly twice as fast as the increase in the senior population from 2009 to 2018.
Texas is one of the most dangerous states for pedestrians; the state accounted for over 11% of all pedestrian deaths in the entire country in 2106 but only 8.2% of the country’s population. In fact, Texas, along with Arizona, California, Florida, and Georgia accounted for roughly half of all pedestrian deaths in the US but only one-third of the US population. The five major cities in the Texas Triangle megaregion have among the highest pedestrian fatality rates in all U.S. cities over one half million—in 2016 only three U.S. cities had a higher pedestrian fatality rate than Dallas, the city with the highest rate in the Texas Triangle. Below we expand on these figures.
The data in this brief should serve as an early warning to Texas policymakers, engineers, gerontologists, and planners: Texas does not provide a friendly environment for seniors who want to walk in their community. To encourage seniors to reduce their growing dependence on the private car and to facilitate their walking safely and securely for exercise, social interaction, personal business, and to access public transit we have to make major policy changes now. We need substantial changes in our approach to providing and paying for pedestrian infrastructure, public safety, the placement and timing of traffic control devices particularly near areas where seniors live or want to travel, greater education for drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians themselves, and perhaps changes in vehicle design to make more pedestrian crashes survivable for vulnerable populations. We must start now or the state will be unable to meet the health and mobility needs of the growing number of Texans over 65, and increasingly over 85.
Changing Pedestrian Death Rates Over Time: The U.S.
In 2018 those 65 and above were 16% of the total population, but constituted over one in five pedestrian deaths in the United States. Table I makes clear how much faster the growth of the population and licensing was among US seniors by sex than in the total population between 2009 and 2018 (the latest US data). It also makes clear how much more likely seniors of both sexes were to be killed in pedestrian crashes over time than the general population. The column at the right of the table shows the change in the total population, in drivers licensing, and in four major types of traffic crashes (there are others) in the ten year period. The first three columns focus on these same statistics but only for people 65 and over, by gender. The senior population of the United States grew by a third from 2009 – 2018—roughly five times faster than the population as a whole (6.6%). Licensing rates for seniors grew even faster, 38% overall, compared to roughly 8% in the total U.S. population. These licensing figures don’t include many people who first obtained a driving license as they hit retirement; rather it represents the fact that the oldest seniors, and specifically women, may never have driven a car. Today, however, almost all men and over 90% of women reach their 65th birthday having driven for decades—so almost universal licensing among younger cohorts of the elderly show as a substantial increase in licensing among seniors.
Table I shows that pedestrian crash deaths went up substantially for both younger and older people between 2009 and 2018, an alarming trend. More alarming is the fact that the number of senior pedestrian deaths went up much more that it did for the total population; pedestrian death rates for all seniors increased almost 65% or almost exactly double the rate of their population growth in the nine year period. Those rates, as with most crashes and deaths, were not evenly divided between the sexes; the pedestrian death rate among senior women went up roughly 50% compared to over 74% among comparable men.
The Table makes clear that other types of senior traffic deaths have also increased significantly, but far less than the growth in the population 65+, or the growth in senior driver licensing. We always hope that all traffic death rates would decline over time due to aggressive traffic safety programs, particularly targeted at problematic drivers. To the extent there is good news here, however, it is that these rates are less than the increase in the population of, or licensing rates among, seniors. These data, however, highlight the substantial increases in pedestrian deaths among both the total population and seniors.
The reality is that cars are becoming safer to drive than in past and offer more protection in a crash to both drivers and passengers, even as they have become more lethal to pedestrians. It’s hard to make senior pedestrians safer in the ways we’ve made cars safer however; older people are less able to see or get out of the way of a moving vehicle and often misjudge how rapidly a vehicle is approaching. Addressing these issues will be more difficult. We’re unlikely to substantially reduce senior pedestrian deaths by urging seniors alone to change their behavior; senior pedestrians are not likely to engaged in criminal or deliberately illegal behavior when out walking. Seniors who have fatal pedestrian crashes are very unlikely to have been drunk, although alcohol is involved in a significant number of pedestrian deaths among those younger than 65. Seniors also become more fragile as they age so they are more likely to die or be seriously injured in a pedestrian crash which wouldn’t impact younger pedestrians nearly as seriously. It’s important to remember, however, that dying in a crash says nothing about who is to blame; seniors are just more likely to die in crashes of comparable severity than younger people.
Changing Pedestrian Death Rates Over Time: Texas
Texas has a particularly problematic pedestrian safety record, exemplified by the five major cities in the Texas Triangle. In 2016 the U.S. pedestrian fatality rate, that is the number of pedestrian deaths per 100,000 population, was 1.85; the comparable rates for all seniors was 2.35 but 2.46 for seniors over 75. Texas’ pedestrian fatality rate for the entire population was 2.41—that is worse than the national rate for seniors alone! Only seven states had a higher pedestrian death rate than Texas. The pedestrian fatality rates for the five Texas Triangle cities were even higher—and among the highest in the country for cities over 500,000. Dallas had the worst pedestrian fatality rate of the five—4.32—or more than twice the national average; San Antonio was not far behind at 4.29. The “best” of the five cities was Austin with a pedestrian fatality rate of 3.0, or 63% higher than the national average. In all five cities pedestrian deaths exceeded 30% of total traffic fatalities—compared to the national average of 19%—although walking rates are lower in Texas than in the nation as a whole.
Pedestrian death rates among Texas seniors are also moving relentlessly in the wrong direction; between 2009 and 2017 (the latest year for which Texas crash data are publicly available) the population of Texans 65 years of age or older grew almost 41%, the third fastest rate in the nation. Texas gained just over one million more people 65 and older in that eight year period. The number of pedestrian deaths among seniors, however, grew well over twice as fast—95.8%. (The data in this table are based on, or calculated from reports prepared by the police and submitted to the Texas Department of Transportation.)
Table 2 compares pedestrian fatalities in Texas for cohorts of seniors, comparing them to population growth between 2009 and 2017. Seniors comprised 10.1% of the Texas population in 2009 and 12.4% in 2017, substantially less the comparable national figure in 2017—just under 16%. And while the senior share of the state’s population increased dramatically, the senior share of pedestrian deaths did not, in spite of the over one million new Texas seniors. Both facts are the result of a strange demographic quirk. The state has grown extremely rapidly due to massive immigration from around the country and the world. People who make these major moves tend to be younger; fewer than 3% of seniors move home in any year and most only do so when they retire or late in life when they must move to a care facility. Most seniors age in place in or near the communities where they worked and raised a family (which also eventually increases the number of older residents where they live). So while Texas now has the third highest population of people 65 and older in the nation, it has a smaller share of seniors in the population and in pedestrian crash rates.
The Table also reveals another anomaly: Texas men 65 and over account for roughly seven of ten senior fatal pedestrian crashes—but constitute a smaller share of all male pedestrian fatalities in Texas than senior women do of all female pedestrian fatalities. In 2017 women 65+ accounted for 22% of all fatal female pedestrian crashes in the state while older men accounted for roughly half that amount. The reason? Men dominate pedestrian crash rates at all ages, often because of dangerous or risky behavior (like being drunk or deliberately careless) so they are more likely to die in a pedestrian crash than comparable women. But senior women are more likely to be fragile and have physical problems that make them more susceptible to pedestrian crashes and serious injury than younger women. Thus they constitute a higher percentage of all female pedestrian deaths in Texas even as they account for fewer total pedestrian deaths than do comparable senior men. Note that in 2009 senior women and men over 85 constituted the same share of all the pedestrian deaths of their gender; by 2017 that had changed drastically. Women over 85 represented more than one in five female deaths in pedestrian crashes in Texas in 2017.
Where Do We Go From Here?
The almost spectacular increases in the rates of pedestrian deaths both nationally and in Texas reflect the fact that such deaths still represent a relatively small absolute number of crashes. Thus even minor numerical changes can translate into double digit rates of growth. It is important to remember, however, that most experts believe that pedestrian deaths are seriously undercounted, in part because they are not always recognized or accurately reported by the police, and, in part because someone must die fairly soon after a crash to be counted as a pedestrian death. People may linger some time before dying or develop secondary illnesses leading to death in the aftermath of a pedestrian crash—and not be considered a pedestrian causality. Moreover many more seniors are seriously hurt as pedestrians in ways that don’t show up in fatality statistics. The serious but less than lethal injuries that survivors sustain can substantially decrease their mobility and quality of life, ultimately leading to premature death.
And many seniors who have never had a serious pedestrian crash often significantly alter their lives to avoid the risk of doing so. Senior pedestrians have a well-documented fear of adverse interactions with cars, cyclists, crowds, and a variety of environmental barriers which prevent them from feeling comfortable in walking in their own communities. The bottom line is that pedestrian death rates alone do not tell the whole story of the very real and rapidly growing health and safety risks that US and Texas seniors face in walking. In 2019 there were more than 3.3 million Texans over the age of 65 and almost a half million over 75. This is a sizable number of people who live in communities not conducive to safe walking—it’s no wonder that Texans over 65 are so much more dependent on their cars than seniors in other parts of the country.
The lack of safe and secure pedestrian infrastructure and the failure to seriously attend to these issues creates or exacerbates a maelstrom of societal problems from the environmental and congestion issues that worsen when people see no alternative to driving, to the serious public health concerns that arise when seniors drive when they shouldn’t because it isn’t safe to do so or fail to walk for their mental and physical health when they should. This is a complex problem which requires solutions in multiple domains from addressing pedestrian infrastructure needs to changing how people drive (or cycle) to considering the impact of land use patterns. We must start now or these issues will swamp our communities.
The data presented in the Brief were calculated from the following sources.
Texas Department of Transportation. (nd). Table: Fatalities by Age, Person Type, and Gender, 2017. Viewed on: http://ftp.dot/state/tx/us/pub/tx/dot-info/trl/crashstatistics/2009/06.pdf
Texas Department of Transportation. (nd). Table: Fatalities by Age, Person Type, and Gender, 2017. Viewed on: http://ftp.dot.state.tx.us/pub/txdot-info/trl/crashstatistics/2017/06.pdf
U.S. Federal Highway Administration. (2010). Highway Statistics 2009. Table DL-20: Distribution of Licensed Drivers – 2009 by Sex and Percentage in Each Age Group and Relation to Population. Office of Highway Policy Information. Viewed on: www.fhwa.dot/policyinformation/statistics.2009.dl20.cfm
U.S. Federal Highway Administration. (2020). Highway Statistics 2018. Table DL-20: Distribution of Licensed Drivers – 2018 by Sex and Percentage in Each Age Group and Relation to Population. Office of Highway Policy Information. Viewed on: www.fhwa.dot/policyinformation/statistics.2018.dl20.cfm
U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. (2019). 2018 Fatal Motor Vehicle Crashes: Overview. Traffic Safety Facts. Research Note. DOT HS 812 826.
U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. (2020). Older Population. Traffic Safety Facts: 2018 Data. DOT HS 812 928.
U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. (2018). Pedestrians. Traffic Safety Facts: 2016 Data. DOT HS 812 493.
Other Relevant References:
Alred, R. (2018). Inequalities in self-report road injury risk in Britain; A new analysis of national travel survey data, focusing on pedestrian injuries. Journal of Transport and Health. 9 (1), 96 – 104.
Feleke, R., Scholes, S., Wardlaw, M., and Mindell, J. S. (2018). Comparative fatality risk for different travel modes by age, sex, and deprivation. Journal of Transport and Health. 8 (3), 307 – 320.
Methorst, R., Schepers, P., Christie, N., and de Geus, B. (2017). How to define and measure pedestrian traffic deaths? Journal of Transport and Health. 7 (A), 10 – 12.
Newgard, C.D. et al. (2019). Long-term outcomes among injured older adults transported by emergency medical services. Injury. 50 (6), pp 1175 – 1185.
Oxley, J., O’Hern, S., Burtt, D., and Rossiterm B. (2018). Falling while walking: A hidden contribution to pedestrian injury. Accident Analysis and Prevention.114 (1), 77 – 82.