September 2006 ISSUE

The Signs They Are A-Changin’

Safety advocates want to guide drivers — particularly the swelling ranks of the grey-haired set — along a safer road. How? With clearer, more consistent, more redundant and bigger-lettered signs, for one. And with safer design standards for another.

Freelance Writer


Experience counts for a lot in life - but what we notice and react to through the windshield doesn't always change for the better, a study has found. As the baby boom ages, road signs and engineering need to be revamped.

News flash: we aren’t getting any younger. And most of us drive cars. The front row of the Baby Boom is, in fact, cruising in on age 60 this year, and the number of motorists passing that milestone — some of them with their eyes squinted and their joints aching — will only keep increasing.

Mobility, reaction times, eyesight and the ability to detect sounds affect how we climb stairs, read a book or listen to music. They can also hamper our effectiveness behind the wheel.

These facts may not be earth-shattering on their own, but they’re big flashing lights for the traffic engineering and safety advocacy communities. The safety of aging drivers is an emerging priority for engineers, law enforcement officials, provincial governments, municipalities and agencies such as the Alberta Motor Association.

AMA’s Foundation for Traffic Safety funded the recent Alberta Traffic Safety Guide to Accommodate Aging Drivers. The report, compiled by Hamilton-Finn Road Safety Consultants Ltd. in Calgary, recommends engineering practices to improve safety for older drivers.

A series of workshops last year brought together seniors and other stakeholders. They helped develop a three-pronged approach, including two old stand-bys, education and enforcement.
The third prong is engineering.

Statistics and the Older Driver
Raheem Dilgir, P.Eng., a project consultant with Hamilton-Finn, considers the report a “go-to” document. He calls it a “a wake-up call to realize that with an increasing aged population, whatever issues we think we have now are only going to get worse.”

Mr. Dilgir notes that although there are national and provincial guidelines for traffic signs and roadway geometry, existing suggested procedures may be rendered obsolete by new technologies or social trends — such as an aging population.

Growing older, even past the traditional retirement age of 65, doesn’t necessarily make someone a poor driver. However, the statistics tell a story of car accident risk increasing in later years.

The Hamilton-Finn report notes that while overall traffic-related fatalities and collisions are decreasing in Canada, involvement of older drivers in serious collisions is growing in frequency and proportion.
From 2000-2003, Albertans 65-plus experienced a 1.7 per cent increase in collisions causing death and injury, compared with a 0.1 per cent decline within the general population.

It’s not fair to blame all these injuries and deaths on aging drivers, experts say. We age at different rates, and some drivers may be more fit and healthy than counterparts half as old.

The fact remains, however, that age affects

•  Vision — through reduced static and dynamic visual acuity, limitation of peripheral vision, and reduced contrast sensitivity, night vision and resistance to glare.

•  Cognitive abilities — including selective attention, ability to process multiple messages and reaction times. Also in the mix can be the effects of dementia and drugs.

•  Motor skills — through muscle loss, decreased circulatory or respiratory function and arthritis.

Alberta in the Forefront
It all adds up to a significant concern, here and south of the border. The U.S. has also developed guidelines to better accommodate older drivers.

In Canada, however, Alberta may well be leading the way. There’s even an AMA/C-TEP Road Safety Chair at the University of Calgary. Dr. Richard Tay, who holds the chair, also served on the steering committee.

Besides providing general proposals, the AMA report calls for enhanced and more consistent application of safety measures. Its recommendations target at-grade intersections and railway crossings, interchanges and freeways, road links and work zones.

The report’s 135-plus recommendations call upon road authorities to

•  follow or exceed the highest safety-oriented guidelines already in place in Alberta or Canada
•  look toward using designs or approaches not currently specified in Canadian or Alberta standards
•  make wider and more consistent use of devices beneficial for aging drivers but for which no Canadian guidelines exist
•  apply specific guidelines where currently only generalized recommendations exist.

Government On Side
That’s all good with the Government of Alberta. It certainly doesn’t see the AMA report upstaging or overtaking departmental efforts.

Allan Kwan, P.Eng., executive director of Alberta Transportation and Infrastructure’s Technical Service Branch, served on the steering committee. He sees the AMA recommendations as complementing aims of an initiative called Alberta and Canada Road Safety Vision 2010, which is designed to substantially reduce traffic injuries and deaths over the next four years.

Even prior to the AMA report, the province and some Alberta municipalities had acted on certain recommendations — notably the use of the easy-to-read Clearview font on guide signs and street identifiers.

Still, some recommendations require significant dollars, particularly ones concerning geometric modifications of roadways. These include the reconfiguration of acceleration lanes to existing roadways and additional traffic signals. However, many other suggestions simply involve improved design or technology when signs are maintained or replaced.

It’s all worthwhile, though. And committee chair Don Szarko, AMA manager of advocacy and community services, stresses that this is not just a matter of catering to the needs of aging drivers. “What we do for an aging population benefits all drivers,” he says.

Steering committee member Dr. John Morrall, P.Eng., professor emeritus from the University of Calgary, likens the adoption of aging-driver proposals to wheelchair accessibility in new public buildings. People in wheelchairs of course benefit from the ramps — but so do those pushing strollers or others who find stairs difficult to use.

All the Same
Then there’s the whole issue of consistency. Variety may be the spice of life, but along our roadways, consistency saves lives. Older drivers, probably more than their younger counterparts, are creatures of habit.

The authors of the guide especially hope it leads to a less hit-and-miss application of safety measures. For instance, it would be helpful if left-turn signals at intersections were always set for “leading” rather than “lagging” green-arrow turns.

“What we are trying to do is deliver consistency for our driving populations — so they don’t experience different standards in different jurisdictions or municipalities,” explains the AMA’s Mr. Szarko. “Driving is complex enough as it is.”

With the aging driver guidelines completed, Mr. Szarko believes it’s critical to get the message out to road designers, planners, and those involved in traffic operations. Targets include Alberta municipalities, the federal government, organizations such as the Transportation Association of Canada, and other road agencies across the country.

Within Alberta, local road authorities will be supplied copies of the guidelines, which AMA also plans to post on its website, www.ama.ab.ca/cps/rde/xchg/ama.

Road agencies have a good record for timely adoption of systems to enhance road safety. There’s no reason to believe the response to the Alberta Traffic Safety Guide to Accommodate Aging Drivers will be any different.

That’s good. After all, we all have a shared interest, as we continue down this road of life, in ensuring our roads are safe.