Seniors at the Wheel

With baby boomers becoming senior citizens, the number of elderly drivers is predicted to triple in the United States.  As older drivers age, they usually become more conservative on the road and modify their driving habits to match their declining capabilities.  Unfortunately for these older drivers, even though they do become more conservative and practice modifications, research has shown that they are more likely than younger drivers to be involved in multi-vehicle crashes. 

At or around the age of 65, research has shown that drivers face an increased risk of being involved in a vehicle accident.  When an older driver hits the age of 75, the risk of driver fatality sharply increases.  Researchers have found that three factors may contribute to these statistics: drifting within the traffic lane; decreased ability to change behavior in response to an unexpected or rapidly changing situation; and finally, poor judgment in making left-hand turns.

In a NHTSA study data reports that senior citizens accounted for:

  • 5% of all people injured in traffic crashes
  • 13% of all traffic fatalities
  • 13% of all vehicle occupant fatalities
  • 18% of all pedestrian fatalities

When this study was conducted, elderly people made up about 9% of the population but accounted for 14% of all traffic fatalities and 17% of all pedestrian fatalities.

What can be done to address this problem?

One way to prevent older Americans from driving is that of deficit screening.  Screening could be given to all drivers for who age-related decline is suspected and, thus, whose performance is not only a safety concern for themselves, but for others as well.  Screening could become part of the regular license renewal process.

Mandatory driving tests is another  way to prevent crashes and fatalities by elderly drivers.  Several states already have laws that require any one involved in a fatal crash or more than one crash per year or over a certain age, usually 70, to retake a driving test before renewing their license.  Though some senior citizen lobbying groups state that this is age discrimination, this would prevent those drivers who no longer have safe driving skills from getting behind a wheel.

Friends and family can also have a hand in the prevention of senior citizen car crashes.    There are a number of factors that can end a person’s driving career early, and these include physical disabilities, mental illness, medications, loss of vision, and fragility.  Losing one’s driver’s license can be quite disturbing to most older people as this is their mode of transportation to go to work, to the doctor, shopping and their way to visit friends and family. Talk to your loved one when you notice their abilities declining. Although we want our elderly family and friends to retain their independence, we also want to keep them and others on our roads safe.   When discussing driving skill with an elderly friend or relative, tact and diplomacy is necessary.

AgeQuest is a firm that addresses the training needs of professionals in the field of aging and has a publication that addresses the declining skills of older drivers.  In its publication, “Supporting the Mature Driver,” the firm brings out the signs and patterns of declining abilities and also suggests ways in which to tactfully address the subject to our elderly friends and family members.