Safe and Livable Travel Environments


More than 35,000 people were killed in traffic crashes in the US in 2015, an increase of 7.2 percent over 2014. This ended a five-decade trend of declining fatalities. Pedestrian and bicycle fatalities increased to a level not seen in 20 years, and far more people were injured. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), motor vehicle crashes cause more than $836 billion a year in societal harm.

Older road users are overrepresented in both vehicle and pedestrian crash fatalities in large part because of their increased frailty. In 2015, Adults 65 and older represented 14.8 percent of the population, but they represented 17.5 percent of vehicle fatalities and 18.6 percent of pedestrian fatalities. An older person is 22 percent more likely to die in a crash than someone under 65. And an older pedestrian who is struck by a vehicle is 31 percent more likely to die than a younger pedestrian. Addressing road fatalities will require a multi-pronged, evidence-based approach, including design innovations for infrastructure and vehicles, adequate law enforcement, a cultural shift within our transportation institutions, and a change in public attitudes toward road safety.

Vision Zero—Vision Zero, also known as Toward Zero Deaths, is a growing worldwide movement that aims to eliminate roadway death through ambitious, yet achievable, interim road-safety targets. Vision Zero brings together diverse stakeholders—including local traffic planners and engineers, police officers, policymakers, and public health professionals—to set clear goals to achieve the shared goal of zero fatalities and serious injuries. The initiative focused on the many factors that contribute to safe mobility, including roadway design, speeds, enforcement, behaviors, technology, and policies.

Highway Safety Improvement Program (HSIP)—the HSIP is a core federal-aid program designed to achieve “a significant reduction in traffic fatalities and serious injuries on all public roads.” The program includes all public roads, including those not owned by the state, roads on tribal lands, and publicly-owned bicycle and pedestrian pathways and trails.

States play a key role in the HSIP. All projects must support state safety performance targets created in state Strategic Highway Safety Plans (SHSPs). SHSPs, which state transportation agencies develop, are data-driven four- to five-year comprehensive plans that establish statewide goals, objectives, and key emphasis areas. The Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act requires states to include strategies in SHSPs to address increases in traffic fatalities and serious injuries per capita for drivers and pedestrians age 65 and older.

Speed management—excessive motor vehicle speed was a factor in 29 percent of all fatal crashes in 2013, according to NHTSA. Excessive speed also is a deterrent to walking, bicycling, and other alternatives to driving, and thus it reduces the overall livability of a neighborhood.

Officials can manage excessive motor vehicle speed through setting appropriate speed limits based on road design, roadside risks, traffic volume, and the mix and presence of non-motorized users. They should also properly enforce speed limits, which can include the use of cameras to automate speed enforcement. Studies indicate that automated speed enforcement results in speed reduction (between two percent and 15 percent) and a drop in crashes (between nine percent and 50 percent).

Surveys show that most Americans support the use of automated enforcement, especially on high-risk roads. However, some express concerns, including that cameras violate the right to privacy or that the cameras are put in place only to bring in revenues. Privacy concerns can be addressed by capturing vehicle images rather than occupant images. Localities can also put in place a rational and transparent process for selecting the locations of the cameras, highlighting their use in increasing safety on high-risk roads.

Planners can also use speed management techniques through road design to change driver behavior. Traffic calming measures, including “slow zones” and roundabouts, can be particularly useful in places where speed enforcement may be ineffective. These speed management techniques help address the inherent vulnerability of pedestrians and bicyclists. A pedestrian’s chance of death is 75 percent when struck while crossing a road where vehicles travel 50 mph but only ten percent when vehicle speeds are 23 mph (Figure 9-2). Older pedestrians, because of their increased risk of fragility, particularly benefit from low-speed environments.

Drivers often worry that low-speed environments lead to traffic congestion and delay. But speed is not a good indicator of road capacity and travel time. Proper signal timing, roundabouts, narrower travel lanes, raised medians, and street trees are all ways to reduce travel speed without compromising road capacity.

Average risk of death for a pedestrian struck by a vehicle, by vehicle speed


Complete streets—planning for “complete streets” addresses safety from the perspective of all users, not just motor vehicle occupants. Complete streets are those designed and operated for everyone, including pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists, and transit riders of all ages and abilities. Such efforts are augmented by transportation networks that provide a variety of services, thus allowing consumers a broad array of choices in how to travel safely and in accordance with personal preferences, schedule, and budget. The focus of complete streets initiatives has been on changing transportation agency policies and procedures so that multimodal accommodations become a routine part of planning at the project-development stage.


Walking and bicycling—walking and bicycling promote physical and mental health and are essential to the complete streets model. After driving, walking is the second most popular means of getting around. The 2009 National Household Travel Survey showed that urban nondrivers age 65 and older made 21 percent of their trips on foot; for those 75 and older, the figure is 19 percent. Safe pedestrian pathways are a key component in transit systems as well, since walking is the most common mode of traveling to bus and rail systems. As such, it is US Department of Transportation (DOT) policy to incorporate safe, convenient walking and bicycling facilities into all surface transportation projects unless exceptional circumstances exist.

The design of many communities neither promotes walking and bicycling nor ensures the safety of these activities. Residential areas are often far from commercial facilities. Sidewalks are often nonexistent or in poor condition. Crosswalk signals are often not timed for the slower pace of older pedestrians. A 2008 AARP survey of people age 50 and older found that almost 40 percent of those polled do not have adequate sidewalks in their neighborhoods. Nearly 47 percent cannot cross their main roads safely. Some 48 percent lack a comfortable place to wait for a bus. Older adults in particular need well-maintained and well-lit sidewalks because they may face worsening eyesight.

Walking also poses dangers. Fifteen percent of all traffic deaths in 2015 involved pedestrians. On average, a pedestrian died every two hours that year. People age 50 and older accounted for 47 percent of those pedestrian fatalities, even though they made up just 34 percent of the population in 2015.

Signal timing—the walking speed set for signal operations is one of the most important design and operational parameters affecting pedestrian safety, particularly for older pedestrians, who have an average slower walking speed. Federal law requires states to upgrade substandard traffic control devices and to comply with the standards in the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices.

Signs and pavement markings—safety can be enhanced through a variety of measures. These include large, reflective, standardized signs; standardized, retro-reflective road markings; better road and sign maintenance; and better-illuminated highways. Skid-resistant pavement at high-risk locations has provided a cost-effective way of reducing crashes by more than 30 percent. The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) has published guidelines for road and highway design to improve safety for older drivers.

Street and intersection design—Engineers and the design community refer to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO)’s A Policy on Geometric Design of Highways and Streets, commonly known as the Green Book, for guidance on road design. In 2013, the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) released its Urban Street Design Guide, which outlines a clear vision for complete streets and a basic road map for how to bring them to fruition. It is a toolbox of approaches cities use to make streets safer, more livable, and more economically vibrant.

The FHWA also publishes design guidance specific to the needs of older drivers and pedestrians in the 2014 Handbook for Designing Roadways for the Aging Population. The guide highlights that proper intersection design and regulation can reduce the danger of crashes that occur during left turns (the highest-risk situation for older drivers). For example, the handbook recommends roundabouts, which eliminate left turns and lower speeds, to increase safety.

Supportive Programs—prompt medical attention following a crash is a strong determinant of survival. This is particularly the case for older adults because of their increased risk of fragility and frailty. The “yellow dot” program is an example of a voluntary driver-safety initiative that provides first responders with vital information about motorists who have been involved in a crash and cannot communicate. These types of programs can limit the risk of fatality or severe injury after car crashes. However, before instituting a program, implementing agencies should be aware of its potential concerns such as privacy, potential legal liabilities, and lack of information about the program by people outside of the jurisdiction.

Safe and Livable Travel Environments: Policy

Supportive Programs

In this policy: LocalState

Policymakers should support programs to promote the safety of vehicle occupants after car crashes.

Vision Zero

In this policy: FederalLocalState

All levels of government should adopt “vision zero” for road safety and subsequently set ambitious, yet achievable, interim road safety targets to improve performance and accountability toward the goal of zero deaths.

Speed management

In this policy: FederalLocalState

Wherever feasible, infrastructure should be “self-explaining,” that is, road design and appearance should provide a constant visual guide to drivers in choosing the appropriate speed.

Policymakers should provide sufficient funding for traditional police enforcement and permit the use of automated controls (electronic enforcement of speed limits and red-light stops). Automated controls should be designed to save lives rather than generate revenue. Site selection should be rational, transparent, and conspicuous.

Highway safety manual

In this policy: FederalLocalState

Policymakers responsible for road design should apply Federal Highway Administration Highway Safety Manual methodologies to their safety management and project development processes.

Safety for all users

In this policy: FederalLocalState

Policymakers should adopt complete streets policies and require that road projects are designed, built, maintained, and operated to enable safe access for users of all ages and abilities, including pedestrians, bicyclists, motorists, and transit riders. State and local governments should expedite upgrades to substandard traffic control devices and should install needed devices to conform to the crosswalk signal-timing revisions in the 2009 federal Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices.

Policymakers should focus on pedestrian safety and security in the design and operation of transportation facilities.

State and local governments should adopt and implement transportation plans that accommodate pedestrians and bicyclists. Implementation should include evaluating roads to confirm their ability to accommodate all users; updating design, planning, and policy manuals; and training planning personnel in the design of complete streets.

State and local governments should require and fund safe, well-maintained facilities and environments for nondrivers. These include sidewalks, crosswalks, benches (i.e., resting places for pedestrians), and bike paths, as well as emergency communications systems and traffic management plans.

Congress should strengthen requirements that support the safety of infrastructure for walking and bicycling.

Congress should fully fund the Transportation Alternatives program (See this chapter's section Americans with Disabilities Act Implementation).

Driver and highway safety

In this policy: FederalLocalState

State and local policymakers should use the funds for highway safety maintenance and improvement that are available under federal transportation law.

State and local policymakers should make technological improvements; ensure maintenance of and improved placement and visibility of highway signs, roadway markers, and pedestrian signs; and pursue engineering practices that increase public safety for all. This can be accomplished, in part, by adopting and implementing recommendations found in the Federal Highway Administration’s (FHWA) Highway Design Handbook for Older Drivers and Pedestrians and by implementing a complete streets policy.

State policymakers should inventory high-risk locations of all paved roads with posted speed limit of 40 mph or greater for skid resistance and establish priorities for correction.

Congress should provide financial incentives for design modifications that improve the driving environment for older adults. Design modifications should incorporate complete streets principles.

Congress should require federally funded highways and roads to have clearly visible markings and signs, more lighting, and safe entries and exits.

Congress should permanently freeze the federal 80,000-pound gross vehicle weight limit.

The Federal Transit Administration should ensure that the activities of the National Technical Assistance Center for Senior Transportation target improvements in driver safety as well as alternative modes of travel by older adults.

Congress should direct the FHWA to adopt minimum criteria specifying skid-resistance levels for high-risk locations (curves, intersections, pedestrian and school crossings, and bridge decks), with particular attention to roads with posted speed limits of 40 mph or greater and wet-climate regions. Skid-resistance levels for pavement and crosswalk paint used within pedestrian crossings should be set at a level to minimize the risk of falls.

Street Design Guidelines

In this policy: FederalLocalState


Policymakers should incorporate elements from NACTO's Urban Street Design Guidelines for creating safer streets when making improvements to transportation facilities.