December 16, 2008 | Dave Janney

In the Crosswalk, Age Can Be a Matter of Life and Death

It is nice to see the city looking for solutions…..

(From New York Times, by Clyde Haberman)

You could say that it started with Henry Hale Bliss in 1899.

On a September day in that twilight of the 19th century, Mr. Bliss got off a trolley car at 74th Street and Eighth Avenue, now Central Park West. He turned to help a Miss Lee step down. That chivalrous act — not often seen these days, and not only because we no longer have trolleys — cost him his life.

It put him in the path of a swerving automobile (a taxicab, you may not be shocked to learn). Thus did Mr. Bliss enter the history books. He is believed to be the first person in the United States, indeed in the Western Hemisphere, to be killed by a motor vehicle.

But he bore another distinction. He was 68, possibly 69. That made him also the first American of what is sometimes coyly, and irritatingly, referred to as a certain age to die in this manner.

We mention it because ever since Mr. Bliss met his non-blissful end, older people have been mowed down by cars and trucks in disproportionate numbers. A new study this week by the Tri-State Transportation Campaign, a nonprofit organization that advocates for mass transit, reinforced the point.

The group analyzed the deaths of 255 people from 2005 through 2007. These were pedestrians age 65 or older who were killed by vehicles in New York City and five nearby counties: Nassau, Suffolk, Westchester, Rockland and Orange.

In the downstate region, the transportation campaign said, the 65-and-up bracket made up less than 12 percent of the population. But it accounted for 30 percent of all pedestrian deaths in that three-year period.

By another measurement, men and women who will never see 64 again were four times as likely as everyone else to be killed this way. Those who were 75 years old and up had a death rate more than five times that of their younger neighbors. In this regard, no place was more dangerous than Manhattan, followed in order by Nassau, Staten Island, Brooklyn, Rockland, Orange, Queens, the Bronx, Suffolk and Westchester.

What made Manhattan the most perilous? A simple explanation is that people of all ages walk there more than they do elsewhere. Certainly, Manhattan has “many more seniors walking than in the rest of country,” said Michelle Ernst, who did the analysis for the transportation campaign with Michael Benediktsson, a Princeton University scholar. “Their exposure to this type of collision is much greater,” she said.

Their findings are not a grand surprise. Older people tend to be less nimble than they once were, and may not step lively when, say, a driver barrels into an intersection. If hit, they might die from injuries that a younger person would survive. Then, too, they may make more mistakes than they did in their youth — overestimating how much time they have to cross, for instance.

“New York City streets are not very forgiving to small mistakes that everyone makes when getting about town,” said Paul Steely White, the executive director of Transportation Alternatives, an advocacy group for pedestrians and cyclists. “But perhaps seniors are more sensitive to dangerous streets.”

Most everywhere in the transportation campaign’s study, men died far more often than women. Presumably, this was not a case of women being fed up and pushing their husbands into traffic. In good part, it is simply that “men tend to walk more than women,” said William Stoner, an AARP official in New York.

But it may also be that men are less willing than women to admit to themselves that they are not what they used to be. And so perhaps they take more risks than they should crossing streets. These are often the same men who, when driving somewhere unfamiliar, refuse to acknowledge that they need to ask directions. Trust us, we know those guys. We are those guys.

In many respects, New York streets are safer than they once were, for everyone on foot. In 1990, the city recorded 365 pedestrian deaths. That number has steadily declined, to a low of 136 in 2007. Even so, police statistics showed that New Yorkers were twice as likely last year to have been killed by a stranger at the wheel than by a stranger with a gun or a knife.

And as the city ages — the 65-plus bracket is expected to approach 20 percent of the population in 25 years — concerns will probably grow about “safe streets for seniors.” That phrase happens to be the name of an experimental program begun this year by the city’s Transportation Department in neighborhoods with relatively high concentrations of older people. Measures being tested include adjusting traffic signals to give people more time to cross streets, extending sidewalks to reduce the distance people have to cross and creating “pedestrian refuge islands.”

It’s too soon for final judgments, the department says. But the experiment recognizes, and the transportation campaign’s study reinforces, an adage that was probably true even in Henry Bliss’s day: Old age isn’t for sissies, especially when you’re out and about.

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