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America is aging and Congress is taking up a new highway bill. The connection? Safety. Already pedestrians and cyclists in the U.S. are far more likely to be hit by cars than those in some European cities. Add to that a coming tide of walking canes and wheelchairs. NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.
JENNIFER LUDDEN: I'm at a busy intersection outside Washington, DC, to help a little old lady across the street. Actually, Elinor Ginzler of AARP isn't old, but she's brought along a cane to pretend she is.
Ms. ELINOR GINZLER: It's all about how do you get to the other side.
LUDDEN: Ok, well are you ready to try it?
Ms. GINZLER: Sure.
LUDDEN: We step into six lanes of rush-hour traffic and the countdown flashes: 20 seconds!
Ms. GINZLER: There are cracks in the pavement that could make it difficult for me to walk well....And I'm getting a little nervous 'cause I have 10... 8 seconds left and I'm only half way through.
LUDDEN: Frankly, Ginzler isn't faking being an older person very well. She's going at a pretty steady clip with that cane, and still we run out of time just before the last lane.
LUDDEN: Ok, you're lucky that car was watching for you.
Safe on the sidewalk, Ginzler says American roads were designed with one aim: to move cars quickly. Case in point? 82-year-old Mayvis Coyle.... a hero to the pedestrian safety crowd. A few years back, Coyle was carrying groceries across a four lane highway in Los Angeles. Half way across, the light changed. When she finally reached the other side, a policeman was waiting.
Ms. GINZLER: She was actually initially delighted to see a police officer because she thought this person was there to help her. In fact, he gave her a ticket.
LUDDEN: A $114 dollar ticket for obstructing the flow of traffic.
Ms. BARBARA MCCANN: (Director National Complete Streets Coalition): There's this absurdity about our transportation system in some locations right now.
LUDDEN: Barbara McCann heads the National Complete Streets Coalition. It promotes revamping roads to make them safer not just for seniors, but also bicyclists, the disabled, parents with strollers. So far, 24 states and 200 localities have signed on. Legislation in Congress would require all states and regions to come up with their own such plans for future projects.
McCann says a typical makeover is what's called a road diet - turning four lanes of traffic into three - with one serving as a turn lane - and bike lanes on the outside. Yes, it costs money - though McCann says not much. She says local groups often object at first, afraid it will worsen traffic. But...
Ma. McCANN: You can actually move a lot of cars, at slower speeds, very safely. And the time costs for the drivers are in the realm of 30 to 60 seconds.
LUDDEN: One congressman wants to devote half a billion dollars of the existing highway trust fund to senior safety - and not just pedestrians.
Representative JASON ALTMIRE (Democrat, Pennsylvania): By 2025, one in four drivers in the country is going to be 65 and older.
LUDDEN: Jason Altmire is a House Democrat from Pennsylvania. He points to places like Tampa, Florida, which took on two especially dangerous intersections.
Rep. ALTMIERE: They created what they called senior zones, where they improved the lettering on the signs and the reflectivity, they improved the pedestrian crossings and they actually cut in half the accident rate at those two intersections.
LUDDEN: But is that Congress's job? The chairman of the house transportation committee didn't return calls for comment. But John Mica, a Florida Republican, has said he'd like to get rid of mandates for bike lanes and sidewalks, not add more. In tight times, he says states should have total flexibility to decide what kinds of roads to build and how many seconds people have to cross them.
Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Washington.
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