In the city of Toronto recently, there was a confluence of crashes as 24 (some count 29) pedestrians and cyclists were hit on a single dark and rainy evening. The police said “I have no idea why it’s happening. It could be the weather, the darkness … anything.” The Globe and Mail’s Oliver Moore wrote an article, Toronto mayor pledges to protect pedestrians after 24 hit by cars in one day, and this letter was printed in the paper in response:

letter to the editor It's all because of smartphones? Right. (Photo: Globe and Mail scan)

I almost spit my oatmeal reading this. Seriously, 29 people hit and the reader is complaining about smartphones?? And the Globe and Mail is printing this? Why are we still arguing about this? (I did rant about the subject earlier this year on MNN, but still.)

There are so many problems in this very common complaint, and Oliver Moore (commenting on the same letter to the editor) points out the most obvious one in his tweet below: It's simply not true. It is just not a statistically relevant issue.

tweet re data

As I noted in an earlier post on TreeHugger, in a U.S. study of 23,240 pedestrian fatalities between 2010 and 2014, portable electronic devices were a factor in 25 cases. People are not stepping off the sidewalk heads down and getting hit because they're playing with their phones.

But there's a more important issue at play here. As a police spokesperson notes in the video above, 60 percent of the people getting hit are older, boomers and seniors, even though they make up only 14 percent of the population. And if you think kids are distracted by looking at screens and listening on earbuds, consider what happens as you age and understand why older people are the victims in so many crashes.

tweet about old people

Because while everybody is complaining about young people compromising their hearing and vision with smartphones, the fact is that a huge and growing proportion of our population is compromised by age. Drivers should be driving on the assumption the person in the road is not looking or seeing them, because they might not be able to.

Our roads, intersections and speed limits should be designed for this as well because it's just going to get worse as the 75 million baby boomers age. I'm one of them — not quite senior, but definitely boomer. I'm fit because I bike everywhere, but I am compromised. I have to wear fancy hearables and am doing watchful waiting for cataract surgery. I'm going through what happens to everyone as they age, and here are just a few of them:

What happens to your vision

Pupil size reduces, so people in their 60s need three times as much ambient light to read.

Focusing is harder, moving the eyes from something close (like the street right in front of you) to something far (like cars down the road) takes longer.

Peripheral vision decreases; the visual field gets smaller by up to three degrees per decade.

Color vision deteriorates and the contrast between different colors becomes less noticeable.

Cataracts cloud vision; this affects half of all 65-year-olds and eventually pretty much all seniors.

What happens to your hearing

It gets worse as you age, for almost everyone. Nearly 25 percent of those aged 65 to 74 and 50 percent of those who are 75 and older have disabling hearing loss — and note, that is disabling hearing loss. Only a a third of adults over the age of 70 who could benefit from hearing aids have them, and only 16 percent of those under 70 who could benefit from them have them, so basically, just about every baby boomer and senior out there has some degree of compromise.

What happens to your mobility

An English study found that 84 percent of men and 93 percent of women over the age of 65 had some degree of walking impairment. It concluded that “The vast majority of people over 65 years old in England are unable to walk fast enough to use a pedestrian crossing.” As you get older, you walk more slowly and carefully. You are in the road longer and therefore there is more chance that you will get hit. The law in most places (like Ontario) even gives the person in the intersection the right of way, even if the light has already changed, so drivers legally have to be checking the intersection ahead even if the light is green.

comment on TreeHugger Personal responsibility! (Photo: Comment on TreeHugger)

This is why I'm so sick of these letters and comments. When I hear or read a driver complaining about the kids looking at their phones, I get angry because they could be talking about me or my mom — the city is full of people who are compromised or distracted. That doesn’t let the driver off the hook. I quoted Brad Aaron of Streetsblog in my earlier post:

"If your transport system has zero tolerance for anyone who isn’t a fit adult, the system is the problem, and ... By casting blame elsewhere you assume everyone is like you — can see, hear, walk perfectly. Arrogant & extremely unhelpful.”

It's the driver's job to be looking out for people in the road, compromised or not. It used to be called “driving defensively,” looking everywhere all the time. It’s the planner's job and the engineer's job to be designing our cities and roads so they serve everyone of every age, not just the people in cars. It's the pedestrian's job to do his best to get across the street, but that clearly isn’t enough for some people in cars. They would rather blame the victim.

Lloyd Alter ( @lloydalter ) writes about smart (and dumb) tech with a side of design and a dash of boomer angst.