Commentary

Empathy for elderly can cut road fatalities

Empathy for elderly can cut road fatalities
Although the number of road fatalities has gone down over the past year, more elderly pedestrians are getting injured or killed in traffic accidents. Just as we would look out for the elderly and others in need of a priority seat on the bus or MRT, we should look out for the elderly and others on the roads. TODAY file photo
Published: 4:00 AM, February 16, 2017

In May last year, an 83-year-old woman was killed when she was hit by a car while jaywalking. She was one of the growing number of elderly pedestrians killed in traffic accidents, which increased by 21.7 per cent last year.

Although the number of road fatalities as a whole has gone down from 151 to 141 over the past year, more elderly pedestrians are getting injured or killed in traffic accidents, according to the latest statistics from the Traffic Police (TP).

In 2016, there was a 42.1 per cent increase from the previous year in the number of accidents involving elderly pedestrians who jaywalked.

The Government has implemented infrastructure enhancements, in a bid to make the roads safer for elderly pedestrians.

Take, for example, the Silver Zone initiative by the Land Transport Authority, in which neighbourhoods with a high proportion of elderly pedestrians are fitted with features such as the Green Man + and two-stage crossings, which allow the elderly more time to cross the road.

By 2019, there will be 25 Silver Zones around the island.

Still, the number of traffic accidents involving elderly pedestrians continues to increase.

While we may be quick to pin the responsibility on elderly jaywalkers, a little empathy could put things into perspective. Truth be told, we, as motorists, have a part to play as well — the Traffic Police have noticed instances where accidents were caused by motorists turning right at junctions and not looking out for elderly pedestrians.

We might ask, then: Why do elderly pedestrians not observe road rules and stop jaywalking?

Coupled with the notion that old habits die hard, the elderly have another set of problems to be concerned about — their health.

Spare a thought

We may attribute their behaviour to a sense of entitlement, but we do not often stop to consider that they might have age-related conditions such as osteoarthritis, which affects mobility, or even glaucoma, which could cause near-blindness.

In fact, a study by the Singapore National Eye Centre revealed that over 80 per cent of Singaporeans aged 60 and above have some form of cataract, which impairs vision.

Our sight, hearing and reflexes are all crucial to how we use the roads. If we cannot see or hear well, we cannot anticipate oncoming traffic; if our reflexes are slow, we might not be able to avoid an accident. As we age, these senses deteriorate and added on to this are mobility issues brought on by bone or joint problems.

It is human nature to turn a blind eye to issues that we do not think affect us, but we should extend more empathy towards our elders, as we may one day find ourselves in their shoes.

We have grown so accustomed to our fast-paced way of life that perhaps empathy sounds relatively unimportant.

But it deeply affects our relationships, the way we treat others and even, to an extent, our success and happiness, as we find meaning through shared experiences.

On the roads, empathy could mean yielding even when we have the right of way, because someone else may be in a rush, or may need more time to cross the road as he or she is not as mobile. It also means looking out for vulnerable road users such as children and the elderly, whose judgment on the roads may not be as quick or sharp.

Changing mindsets

Empathy is also part of RoadSense, a recent approach by the TP to build a healthier road culture, by encouraging motorists and pedestrians alike to drive change through pro-social behaviour. A shift in mindset is the first step to safer roads.

In his book Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do, American journalist Tom Vanderbilt writes about driving as an anonymous activity. Although surrounded by others, in our cars we operate as individuals. With anonymity comes diffused responsibility and, as a result, people are more inclined to act in a way that is anti-social.

Bad driving habits have been linked to a lack of empathy, which makes sense when we think of driving as a social behaviour — our choices and actions on the road affect not only us, but also tens or even hundreds of people (in the case of traffic jams).

We are all wired to feel empathy — it is just about how and when we choose to use it.

So what are some simple ways we can build empathy?

Practise reflective driving. This means avoiding distractions, keeping within the speed limit and looking out at traffic lights and junctions, especially when changing lanes or turning. When the traffic light turns green, check your surroundings before stepping on the accelerator.

Learn mindfulness. Road etiquette is no different from what we practise on public transport. Just as we would look out for the elderly and others in need of a priority seat on the bus or MRT, this same behaviour should be applied to the roads.

Step into their shoes. Non-profit organisation Etch Empathy offers courses that allow you to experience what it is like to be an elderly person by donning an ageing simulation suit. By physically understanding their challenges, we can connect on a deeper level.

Whether we are on the roads or on public footpaths, it takes only a second to consider others around us. This very choice could help to bring our accident rates down.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Aaron Yeoh is the co-founder of Etch Empathy, a leading non-profit organisation which aims to nurture empathy in youths and working adults through various programmes and social simulations.