By Cristina Rouvalis
A year ago, Jimmy Kilgallen was maneuvering his electric wheelchair across a treacherous intersection in Pittsburgh. Just as he approached the sidewalk at the corner of Penn Avenue and 40th Street, a car slammed into the back of his chair.
For Kilgallen, 66, life has changed dramatically since that hit-and-run accident in his Lawrenceville neighborhood. After multiple surgeries, he lost all the toes on his left foot. Now he’s behind on the rent and worries he will never catch up on his bills.
Like other residents of Canterbury Place, a red-brick senior community at the same intersection, he’s afraid to cross the street, even to shop at the convenience store he can see out
“It’s like we’re prisoners. I’m afraid to go out,” said Kilgallen, a retired nurse’s aide.
But he and others are fighting back. As part of the group Age-Friendly Greater Pittsburgh, they have waved signs and danced across city streets to call attention to pedestrian safety.
Their flamboyant actions have led to serious talks with the staff of Mayor Bill Peduto (D).
Though frustrated by the slow pace of change, Kilgallen and his neighbors cheered this fall when police stepped up enforcement, ticketing more than 20 motorists in one day for running red lights and failing to yield to pedestrians.
Residents at risk
As part of its Livable Communities initiative, AARP Pennsylvania is committed to making streets safer for pedestrians and cyclists. Volunteers work with community groups, pressing officials to improve safety.
Pedestrians of all ages are injured by cars, but the odds increase as people age, said Ray Landis, advocacy manager for AARP Pennsylvania.
“A 25-year-old who sees a car coming can run across the street, but an older person may not be able to do that,” he said.
Of the 150 pedestrian fatalities in the state in 2017, half were people 50 and older, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation.
Seven localities—Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Swarthmore and West Chester; and Allegheny, Lehigh and Northampton counties—have drawn up plans to make neighborhoods safer, joining the AARP Network of Age-Friendly States and Communities. ( aarp.org/livable)
Leaders of the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia and AARP successfully lobbied the General Assembly for speed cameras on a nine-mile stretch of Roosevelt Boulevard, a notoriously dangerous thoroughfare.
Bob Previdi, policy coordinator for the group, has seen too many speeding motorists endangering the lives of older pedestrians. “It’s tragic and inexcusable—cars honking at people with disabilities,” he said.
Age-Friendly Greater Pittsburgh, working with other advocates, stages pop-up performances where people in goofy hats dance and wave signs at hazardous intersections. “We are silly, but we are also very serious,” said
Laura Poskin, the group’s director. In response, the city added highly visible crosswalks and accessible ramps at Penn and 40th and plans to upgrade traffic signals.
As Kilgallen watched police ticket motorists on a recent day, he wished they had been there to stop the driver who changed his life. “I cry about it,” he said. “I lost my toes over something stupid.”
Cristina Rouvalis is a writer living in Pittsburgh.