Type:  Coverage 

By Sam Doran


BOSTON, JUNE 18, 2015....Flashing yellow arrows at left turns and enhanced warnings for wrong-way drivers are among the steps the state is taking to meet the needs of an "aging population."

Jim Danila, assistant state traffic engineer at the Department of Transportation, highlighted those measures at an Older Driver Safety Summit on Tuesday as "probably our two biggest projects we've got going on" in regard to older drivers. The day-long summit was hosted by the John McCormack School's Gerontology Institute at UMass Boston and focused on both infrastructure and policy.

"You'll start to see flashing arrows pop up starting this year," Danila said, as construction starts to retrofit traffic lights at roughly 270 state highway intersections. MassDOT will tackle 20 more intersections the next year, with another 50 in the future, he said.

The flashing yellow arrow is already installed at two left turns on Massachusetts state highways - One in Littleton and another in Lenox, Danila said, and has "significantly decreased the number of left turn crashes."

Organizers of the summit said traffic accidents that involved older drivers result in 12 percent of Massachusetts' crash fatalities and one in five crash-related hospital stays. The state's 65-and-over population increased almost five percent from 2000 to 2010, according to the Executive Office of Elder Affairs website. The office's research unit has estimated there will be over 1.17 million 65-and-older Bay Staters by 2020 - over 23 percent more than in 2010.

MassDOT will also work to "double up" signage at 432 locations "susceptible to wrong-way accidents" across the state. Danila said the increased "Wrong Way" and "Do Not Enter" signs will be tailored to benefit older drivers.

"We know from the research that older drivers and impaired drivers tend to have a lower cone of vision," he said. "They're not necessarily looking for a sign that might be mounted seven feet up in the air." So the new signs will be mounted lower -- "maybe just 36 or 24 inches off the road."

The state finished re-signing selected western Mass. locations last year. The project picked up again earlier this year and completed the Cape Cod phase. They are now working on the South Coast and moving north, Danila said.

The state will also add "positive guidance" to point drivers into the correct ramp. "We'll hopefully have some crash statistics that we can evaluate" after the project's completion this fall, Danila said.

Other projects that Danila said will benefit older drivers include an inventory of state highway signs that will note condition and need for replacement, and the addition of advance warning signs at high-crash curves.

A remaining question is at what point some older drivers become impaired. Rep. Kay Khan (D-Newton) appeared on a policy panel Tuesday and in comments after the panel, she talked about the difficulty of legislating an answer. "Do you just pick an age out of a hat and say, OK, when you turn 65 or when you turn 70 . . . "

Instead, Khan said, "we need to educate physicians...about the need to report, or at least confront families, when there is someone that there's a concern about. My feeling, it's not necessarily about that person, it's about the person that could be injured, as well."

"And I don't know if you can legislate education," she said, "but we definitely have to think about that, to talk to physicians about educating themselves so they know this is important."

Khan also cited the need for alternatives to driving for elders.

"We need to be looking at, how do we organize communities so there's better opportunities for people to move around," she said, "to get to the grocery store, and to get public transportation. We have to be looking at the whole picture, of transportation, housing, and the driving issue as well."

During an infrastructure panel, Bonnie Polin of the state highway division said the two projects they featured Tuesday, left-turn arrows and wrong-way signage, "take a lot of our resources and a lot of our time. That's really tough trying to keep within the budget."

Polin was interested in the multitude of ideas offered Tuesday. One that caught her eye is the development of "interesting different types of intersections, like the intersection where you don't go directly through, you have to make a right turn and U-turn back. So we're looking at putting those in places."

"The hope," she said, "is whatever we get out of this summit, we'll be able to take that to move forward."