We can improve the safety of older pedestrians

Judith A. Davey

April 2021

Older people are especially vulnerable as road users. The 65 plus age group is over-represented among road deaths and this is especially true for deaths of pedestrians. Linked to this is the fact that walking accounts for a higher proportion of time spent travelling for older people than for the total population of all ages – 15% for those aged 65-74 and 19% for people 75 plus (all ages 13%).[1] Among the key areas for action set out in “Better Later Life: He Oranga Kaumatua 2019-2034” (which replaced the Positive Ageing Strategy) is to “Enhance Opportunities for Social Connection and Participation” by older people. Improving the safety of older pedestrians is clearly a vital step in enabling older people to live more active and involved lives.

The road casualty figures do not include trips and falls on footpaths. A broken leg or hip as the result of a fall can signal the end of independence for older people. But pedestrians often appear to take a “back seat” to vehicles, as a report from the United Kingdom Department for Transport makes clear:

                Making walking easier is an equal opportunities issue; as long as walking is disproportionately carried out by people on lower incomes, women, children and older people, it will be seen as a lower status mode of transport.   

The New Zealand Institute for Research on Ageing carried out a study of pedestrian safety for older people in 2007[2]. The study included focus groups with older people and interviews with road safety coordinators, traffic engineers and traffic planners. These three groups came up with similar areas of concern.

Pedestrian infrastructure

In many suburban areas there are no footpaths or they serve only one side of the road (photo 1).

1. Footpaths in the Kapiti district

Where there are footpaths, their surfaces may be less than ideal for walkers; paving stones are often uneven and slippery when wet, especially if covered with leaves. The steepness, gradient and design of kerbs and cut-downs may provide further risks for pedestrians. Footpaths in central areas are often obstructed by sandwich boards, shop goods and café furniture, which reduce ease and safety for walkers, especially those visually or mobility impaired. The fear of collisions with obstructions and other footpath users, including inconsiderate skateboarders, cyclists, electric scooters and mobility scooter users, can constitute a constraint for frail older people.

A particular problem in central cities are driveways and building entrances which cross footpaths. Often drivers using them do not give way to pedestrians. Pedestrians give way to drivers on the roadway, so when vehicles cross footpaths they should give way to walkers, who, in fact have the right of way (photo 2)!

2. Vehicles crossing footpath – central Wellington

Crossing roads

Often there are not sufficient safe crossing points for pedestrians, particularly on high traffic volume roads and in areas with high numbers of older people, such as near retirement villages. Even where there are formal pedestrian crossings, not all drivers are considerate enough to let people cross or who do not know or obey the road rules. A particular problem at signalled crossings is that the time given (when the “green man” appears) is too short for many older people to cross without anxiety and many drivers fail to give way to pedestrians on signalled crossings as they turn (photo 3).

3. Sign to indicate pedestrian right of way over turning vehicles

Crossing point design can improve safety, for example pedestrian refuges between lanes offer some protection against traffic and allow the crossing to be done in two stages (photo 4).

4. Railings and staged pedestrian crossing - Wellington

“Courtesy” crossings can be problematic as it is often not clear who has the right of way. The Nelson City Council had a campaign to educate drivers and pedestrians about them, which an emphasis on courtesy and smiles.

Awareness, consultation and education

Older people may experience a reduction in physical abilities, such as vision, hearing, walking speed and ability to judge the speed of traffic, which affects their safety as pedestrians. Traffic planning and management strategies need to bear this in mind, given our rapidly ageing population. A two-way approach is clearly needed, matching education with consultation. All groups who contributed to the research called for planners and others in a position to improve pedestrian safety to consult more widely with older people and community groups to ensure that they are aware of their special concerns.

We will be discussing the experience of older pedestrians at the third New Zealand Walking Summit on 24 - 25 June 2021.

Updated from a blog post published by Age Concern New Zealand in September 2013


[1] New Zealand Household Travel data 2011-2014

[2] Judith Davey and Virginia Wilton, Improving the Safety of Older Pedestrians, supported by the  John Bailey Road Safety Research Fund, published in January 2007.


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Living Streets Aotearoa is the New Zealand organisation for people on foot, promoting walking-friendly communities. We are a nationwide organisation with local branches and affiliates throughout New Zealand.

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