In 2011, there were an estimated 28.5 million people over the age of 70 in the U.S. Of those, approximately 79 percent still drove. Because the population of individuals 70 and over is projected to nearly double over the next few years a lot of people are banging on the drum about the dangers of older drivers. Along with that population surge, you’d think that there would be a proportionate number of traffic incidences from that additional exposure. Surprisingly the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) says otherwise. According to the IIHS, “There are more drivers 70 and over today, but they crash less often than they used to.”
Nationally, IIHS researchers have found that incidents of fatal crashes declined from 1997 to 2008 at a faster pace than for individuals 35 to 54. The reductions were strongest for drivers 80 and over. Non-fatal crashes showed similar declines. They also found that the probability of other drivers surviving had also increased. While a lot of focus has been placed on the horrific accidents of some older drivers, such as the story of George Weller, the overwhelming statistics suggest that most older drivers self-regulate by sticking to familiar streets, avoiding driving at night, driving shorter distances, and avoiding poor driving conditions.
There are repeated calls to impose restrictions and or additional testing on older drivers but so far no state imposes restrictions on a driver based solely on age and studies have shown a mixed bag of results in those states that impose special regulations around license renewals. A study in Iowa where restrictions due to vision are in place found that drivers with restricted licenses were already limiting their driving based on their vision.
States may be better off in focusing on the reasons older people have trouble with driving tasks and work to correct those issues. For instance, states could work to improve visibility of street signage and pavement markings or create dedicated left turn lanes.
Car manufacturers are getting into the act. New vehicles already feature bigger and brighter displays; knobs and steering wheels that make it easier for seniors with arthritis; back up cameras and better mirrors to make it easier to see what is around you; and crash avoidance technologies and adaptive headlines to help seniors stay on the road.
The Centers for Disease Control has these recommendations for older drivers to stay safe while driving:
- Exercise regularly to increase strength and flexibility.
- Ask your doctor or pharmacist to review medicines–both prescription and over-the counter–to reduce side effects and interactions.
- Have eyes checked by an eye doctor at least once a year. Wear glasses and corrective lenses as required.
- Limit driving to daylight hours and good weather conditions.
- Find the safest route with well-lit streets, intersections with left turn arrows, and easy parking.
- Plan your route before you drive.
- Leave a large following distance behind the car in front of you.
- Avoid distractions in your car, such as listening to a loud radio, talking on your cell phone, texting, and eating.
- Consider potential alternatives to driving, such as riding with a friend or using public transit.
Here’s a brief brochure on changes you can make to your vehicle to ensure that the vehicle you drive is comfortable and safe for you to operate.
Older drivers do have impediments to safe driving. Medications and other health-related problems can severely impede driving skills. Traffic flows faster, there are more vehicles on the road than ever before and a drive down any street has a plethora of distractions. But it’s important to keep things in perspective. Many older drivers have better driving skills than those much younger than them.
There are plenty of reasons older drivers are reluctant to give up the keys. Individuals advocating that their family members do so should work to find options for our woefully inadequate public transportation system. There are a lot of studies out there that indicate that giving up the car keys can lead to isolation, depression and even early death so calls to forcibly remove the keys from a loved one’s grip don’t begin to address the real problem of lack of options for getting around. It’s important that while you plan for such things as future housing or financial needs that the entire family looks at transportation options as a real impediment to independent living. If future transportation options are likely to limit independence it may make sense to move to urban environments or senior housing facilities that have built-in transportation options rather than remaining in a single family home in the suburbs that may be miles from services or friends.