Slowing Down is Age-Friendly


“Slowing down” is an age-friendly expression. But what if slowing down could actually be a good thing, and helped you live longer and better?

In the case of Aging and Transportation, slowing down, the traffic that is, carries benefits. 2015 was the deadliest driving year since 2008 with an estimated 38,300 deaths, and 4.4 million serious injuries (NHTSA data). While it may be coincidental, the four states that saw the biggest percentage rise in traffic deaths also have a surging population of aging Baby Boomers, namely Oregon, Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina.

Slowing down traffic speeds is particularly vital for aging Boomers, and others needing to cut back their driving. A primary reason is that reduced speed helps the older driver feel safer on the road, and it reduces the likelihood of injuring himself or an innocent bystander.

A car trip that takes them a few minutes longer will not be viewed as a deterrent. Here is the reason:

If a pedestrian is hit by a speeding driver at a default speed limit of 30 miles per hour (mph) there is a 30 percent chance that person will die. That number goes up to 80 percent if the driver is going 40 mph. At 20 mph, a safe speed limit for an urban area, there is a 98% chance the same pedestrian will live.  

A related reason for Boomers to support “slowing down” is that when roads reduce speeds they then become safer for all other transportation modes. In recent years the mode share for bicycles, walking, and transit has accelerated, particularly in urban areas. Although Millennials have led this trend, it bodes well for older people. Bike lanes and wider sidewalks unlock the streets to new modes. For seniors, this may encourage more travel on bike as well as short trips via battery operated scooters, small electric vehicles, golf carts, and other variants. Slower road speeds make these alternative vehicles more likely.

A third reason that slower speeds matter has to do with reaction time- an AAA site notes that during each mile driven- the average driver makes about 20 major decisions. Drivers have less than one-half second to react to avoid a potential collision. With advancing age, drivers have to manage slower reaction times, and often decreased muscular flexibility.  A lower speed limit gives the older driver a fraction of “time” to deal with the cognitive flood.

Meanwhile, there is a growing safety problem that plagues drivers of all ages. It is called “distracted walking.” Pedestrian injuries are spiking as more people walk, but are distracted from the pavement by their electronic gear and smartphones.   Lowering the speed limit gives drivers more time to react to something that crosses their threshold, like a pedestrian oblivious to a right turning car.  At some point the older pedestrian will be the one to amble, and the lower speed limit might help them safely transverse a wide, busy street.

“Slow” driving- an upper speed limit of 55 on the freeways, was introduced by the federal government in the 1970’s as a fuel saving measure, but raised to 65 mph in 1987.  Then, in 1995 Congress repealed the law, and returned the speed limit setting authority to the states.  Faster speed limits are the province of truckers, big states with dispersed populations, and anti-regulation groups.  The need for speed has also played well with advertisers that link fast cars to concepts like independence, performance, and sportiness.

But, “slow speed” is making a return, as it did in the 1970’s. This time it is an urban initiative. There is currently a council proposal to lower speeds in Boston, Mass. New York City lowered its default speed limit from the standard 30 mph to 24 mph in 2014.

Lowering the speed limit has more precedents. Drivers are accustomed to honoring reduced speeds around schools, hospitals, and in certain residential neighborhoods with school age children. Boomers can be pleased that their grandchildren are protected by lower speed limits in these special zones.

These same kids might be pleased if Grandma and Grandpa received equal protection. With a modicum of technology, cars can be programmed to travel at the posted speed and a smart chip can display speeding violations, or record them for a driver’s insurance company or “guardian.” Slowing down cars is now feasible- it is the driver’s who must also be won over. That may not be difficult since 21 percent of those  age 65 and older do not drive. The Boomers, who have isolated themselves in car dependent suburbs, will need to find ways to stay-on-the road.