How older pedestrians die in traffic in Ontario

a pedestrian and a wheel chair user cross a road. A car stopped on the cross walk.
Reading Time: 9 minutes

Last week I attended the 2024 CARSP conference (CARSP stands for Canadian Association of Road Safety Professionals) co-hosted with Parachute Canada, a Canadian organisation that strives to prevent serious and fatal injuries by evidence based solutions. My participation was sponsored by CARSP, Parachute Canada and DesJardins.

In return for the sponsorship, I held a a walk shop, which is basically a walk during the conference with a safety related theme in this case. Myself and several others took a group of about 30 participants on a short walk on Sparks Street and Wellington Street, where I explained a bit about the past and future of Wellington St, the several plans that are being discussed for Wellington St and the large increase in cyclists on Wellington after car lanes were (partly) reduced, buses and trucks became rare and bike lanes and flexi-posts were introduced.

Yes, I know it is not ideal and yes I know there are tour buses stopping in the bike lane and yes I know the pathway behind Parliament is closed. So I explained all that too, particularly the dangerous situation for cycling at Wellington and Lyon. I am proud to share that the walk shop feedback was overwhelmingly positive. But don’t take my word for it ⬇️⬇️⬇️.

A group of about 15 people listens to a man who is standing slightly higher in an urban environment with towers in the background

Not your rah-rah Powerpoint slide deck

It has been a long time since I participated in a conference. This conference brought together many people working and advocating in the field of traffic safety: city staff, research organisations, universities, not for profits, engineering companies, health professionals. It is not your rah-rah PowerPoint colour slides with happy people walking in car free environments in imaginary new suburban developments in Canada conference though. No, this is serious stuff, with researchers comparing notes about mathematical models predicting crashes at intersections or slides showing how many seniors are killed in Ontario when walking to the mailbox on a late, dark November afternoon.

Helpful conference app

Fortunately, there is the Pheedloop Go! conference app (little did I know) that shows the conference program, participants, bios and many of the research papers and PowerPoint presentations which one can download afterwards: handy, because my brains were fried at the end of the day. The app allows me to look at papers and presentations again. In the text below I lean heavily on a paper’s contents about senior deaths in Ontario while adding some thoughts myself.

Older adults outnumber youth under 15

One of the presentations I found interesting was about older pedestrians dying in traffic. Older adults are a growing population and a vulnerable road user population. The 2016 Statistics Canada Census marked the first time that the number of Canadians aged 65 years and older topped the number of children younger than 15 years. Yes, there are now more older adults than youth under 15.

From 2016 to 2021, the number of people aged 65 and older rose 18.3% in Canada. The population aged 85 and older is one of the fastest-growing age groups. In Ontario in 2010, pedestrians over 65 years of age accounted for a strikingly disproportionate share of accidental pedestrian fatalities. Pedestrians over 65 years old accounted for 36% of the fatalities but comprised 13.2% of the population.

Older pedestrians are generally less likely than younger pedestrians to be struck by motor vehicles, but they are more likely to be killed if they are struck. It has been well documented that pedestrian fatality risk is also generally higher for men. However, older females have been reported to have comparable or higher injury and fatality rates compared to older males.

Increased vulnerability of older pedestrians

In 2013, the World Health Organization (WHO) released a report that stated several factors that increase the vulnerability of older pedestrians. The factors were a combination of the following:

  • deterioration in visual acuity (=sharpness, keenness),
  • cognitive decline,
  • reduced mobility,
  • frailty and existing health conditions, and
  • slower walking speeds.

These factors can make it significantly more difficult to negotiate the road environment safely as an older pedestrian.

At the conference, Allison Pellar, MEng of Western University in London, Canada presented an analysis of unintended senior pedestrian deaths, as part of a larger study of fatal cyclists and pedestrian deaths in Ontario between 2013 and 2019. There were 216 senior pedestrians aged 65 years and older representing 35.0% of the total 617 pedestrians in the study.

When do collisions with older pedestrians happen?

Sadly, five of the 216 pedestrians fatalities (2.3%) were intentional deaths. The majority of the pedestrian fatalities occurred in daylight lighting conditions. That probably makes sense as seniors likely don’t go out in the evening as much anymore. The majority of the collisions occurred during daytime hours from 6 am to 6 pm. The highest frequency of fatalities occurred between 6 and 7 pm (n=24), accounting for 11.4% of the fatalities.

Collisions were more common throughout the week than on the weekends. The highest frequency of collisions occurred from Tuesday to Friday. From Saturday until Monday, collisions are less, around 11% of the total. I am guessing those days are not necessarily less dangerous. Seniors might just be less out and about during the weekends (kids are visiting, weekends at the cottage) and Mondays (cleaning up the mess after the family is gone, crayons on the wall, whipped cream in the carpet) for their daily chores.

Considerably more collisions occurred in November (n=31, 14.7%) than in any other month. May is the month with the least senior deaths. (n=8, 3.5%) A large majority of the collisions happens in clear weather and the road surface was mostly dry.

What happens before the crash?

Older pedestrians collisions often happen close to home, when they leave for errands such as groceries or check the mailbox, visit nearby friends, go for a walk, attend an event, stuff like that. Nearly half of the collisions happen in a place without traffic control (like a traffic light). Nearly a quarter of the pedestrians were crossing at an intersection with a right of way. In over half the cases the pre-crash vehicle movements were travelling straight ahead. Turning left was the second most common movement, then ‘reversing’ and only then turning right. I had expected the turning right to be higher in the score.

an intersection seen from above with a red arrow turning left and a yellow star where pedestrians get hit on a sidewalk
Left turning vehicles is one of the most common source of a crash with senior pedestrians at intersections

Vehicles

A car was the most common vehicle involved in the crash, then the SUV, then the pick up. That is probably because there are a lot of them in Ontario, but transit buses, pick up trucks and vans were over represented in turning left collisions. Pick up trucks were overrepresented in turning-right collisions. Over half of the vehicles in the right turning crashes were pick up trucks, despite accounting for only 19.9% of the vehicles.

a graph showing several bars with data of pre crash actions. 54% of the vehicles were going ahead (straight) where as 21% turned let.

Intersections

Many of the collisions happen in what is called the far side, i.e. the lanes farthest away from where you start crossing. Imagine you need to cross 6 lanes of traffic, three lanes going each way. You are becoming slower as you age and you have a hard time reaching the other end in time, it is about 20 (60 ft) to 30 meters (90 ft) after all. If you shuffle at 2 km/h, a 30 meter crossing takes you nearly a minute to cross. The majority of the intersections were 4-leg (70.9%, n=53/79) and 22 intersections were T-intersections (27.8%, n=29/79).

an intersection seen from above with two arrows in the right most lane where pedestrians frequently get hit
A considerable number of crashes happens in the far side

Speed

As you can see in the graph below, many collisions happen on roads with 40 to 60 km/h speed limits. I assume that is partly because that is what most of the seniors are exposed to in the urban environment.

However, we also need to remember that posted speeds are often not the vehicle speeds. The average impact speed for the senior pedestrian fatalities with a known impact speed (n=210) was 39 km/h. Close to three-quarters of the collisions occurred at impact speeds of 50 km/h or less. The vast majority of drivers didn’t hit the brakes before the crash. Note that very few seniors were killed in a 30 km/h street, hence advocates ask for 30 km/h streets.

A table showing several speed limits and the senior pedestrian fatalities at that speed. Most fatalities are hit in areas with 40 - 60 km per hour zones

Alcohol

The research found little evidence of alcohol or drugs in the blood of the pedestrians and if so it wasn’t much. Three drivers were reportedly impaired by alcohol and one by a substance other than alcohol.

So what do we make of all this?

Senior pedestrians die in many different ways. It is not like one infrastructure modification will solve it all. There are some data that stand out, such as more collisions in November, collisions between 6 and 7 pm and collisions at intersections and left turning driver movements. Close to 80% of the seniors were attempting to cross a roadway.

There are also many different pre-crash actions: one pedestrian was distracted by a cell phone, some people had dementia and wandered, some people were hit on a 100 km/h highway while getting out of their car, some people were hit in the far lane, some people were hit by a car from a driveway. Others may have fallen from a snow bank and someone was hit in a parking garage no less.

A top 5 pre crash action by pedestrians. 45% was crossing with no traffic control, 26% with a right of way, Several other numbers show smaller percentages such as 'on sidewalk'

Seniors are not a risk taking group. Do older pedestrians rely too much on the pedestrian signal, the authors of the research paper wonder. In the paper, the authors also wonder how on a clear, dry day, drivers don’t see a pedestrian crossing their path as they turn left into a road. Does an A-pillar obstruct a driver’s view? (the A-pillar is on the left and right of the windshield, see image below, the bars that connect the roof of the car with the rest of the car;) Could Pedestrian Automatic Emergency Braking (P-AEB) systems prevent collisions, no matter what angle the driver approaches the pedestrian?

A classic American 1950's era car in Cuba. An arrow points to part of the car frame on the windshield's left side. Next to the arrow it says: A-pillar.
The A-pillar might block the driver’s sight line more than we think Pic: Hans on the Bike (2013 – Cuba)

2 step crossing for older pedestrians

One solution the authors don’t mention is infrastructure improvements. Having a two step approach to crossing an intersection, like the one we have on Colonel By Drive at Carleton University could save a number of deaths. Currently, for example at Holland and Carling Ave, or at the Hunt Club intersections (32 meters wide at Merivale) you have to cross all 7-8 lanes in one go. You could stop halfway but there is no push button to activate the light if you can’t make it. Having another pedestrian button in the median to activate the light to cross the far side could mitigate the giant crossings we have in Ottawa.

An extremely wide road with 8 lanes and a large median. The intersection needs to be crossed in one go as there are no pedestrian lights at the halfway point.
It’s a long way to cross this intersection at Holland and Carling
An crosswalk in the Netherlands with a traffic light halfway with a push button to trigger the lights
Schiedam, Netherlands: the refuge halfway has lights and a push button: you have to trust me on this one as it is hard to see
A traffic refuge that separates two car lanes. The centre has been lowered for pedestrians, cyclists and  wheel chair users. The refuge allows pedestrians to wait halfway.
Ottawa has traffic refuges too. This is Colonel By at Hartwells Locks and Carleton U. I suspect this will become busier now the bridge across the Rideau river at the south end of the university is open

Stuff to think about

Stuff to think about because before you know, you are a senior yourself! More than 300 pedestrians die in Canada every year (in 2022, 92 in Ontario alone) and around 7500 in the US, or 20 daily. In the Netherlands in 2023, 71 pedestrians died in traffic. The Netherlands has just below half the population of Canada but around half the number of pedestrian deaths per 1 million residents. There’s a lot of work to do in Canada. Talk to your elected officials about it.

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1 Comment

  1. Another thing that might help is automatic pedestrian detection. That way, the walk signal time can be extended if there is still someone on the crossing.
    This YouTuber known as Ontario Traffic Man also did a nice video detailing how multi-stage crossings at signalized intersections can be made pedestrian-friendly. I think it’s worth checking out. The Protected Intersection Guide by the Ontario Traffic Council also has a brief reference to multi-stage crossings near the end of the guide. I agree that having 2-stage crossings is better than having long single-stage crossings, and I hope they become more commonplace in the future.

    Ontario Traffic Man Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LSnSeyG74fw
    Protected Intersection Guide: https://ontario-traffic-council.s3.amazonaws.com/uploads/2023/09/OTC-Protected-Intersection-Guide-Final.pdf

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