Vandamonium’s Weblog

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Elderly Driving

I know that at 58 I feel safer walking down the road instead of driving, however, my mother is 85 and she still drives just fine….

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An 86-year-old driver killed 10 people and injured more than 70 when he confused the accelerator and brake pedals of his Buick Le Sabre and drove it into a crowded farmers’ market in Santa Monica, California, on July 16, 2003. In Massachusetts in 2009, seven people were injured after a car driven by a 73-year-old woman jumped a curb and ran into a crowd gathered at a war memorial. Also in Massachusetts, a 93-year-old man drove his car into the entrance of a Wal-Mart, injuring six people, after he mistook the gas pedal for the brake.

Are older drivers really such a threat? Studies have resulted in conflicting statistics, but the one thing that’s certain is that it’s a problem society will be dealing with in greater frequency in the coming years. In 2009, about 39 million Americans, or 13 percent of the population, were over age 65, and this age group makes up 15 percent of all licensed drivers in the country.  The U.S. Census Bureau projects that by 2050, almost 1 in 4 Americans, nearly 90 million people, will be over age 65.

Are older drivers a danger to themselves and others?

Carnegie Mellon University and the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety looked at data from 1999 to 2004 and found that fatality rates climb for drivers over age 65. From ages 75 to 84, the fatality rate is equal to that of teenage drivers, long considered the most dangerous age group in automobiles:  about three deaths per 100 million miles driven. After age 85 the fatality rate is four times that of younger drivers. More troubling statistics: in 2005, 11 percent of fatal crashes involved drivers over 65.

However, another recent study refutes this data. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS)  found that the rate of fatal crashes among drivers 70 years and older decreased from 1997 to 2008. In that time, the number of older drivers in the U.S. rose several percentage points, but fatal crashes per licensed driver decreased by a third. The Insurance Institute attributes this drop to the drivers themselves; they say more seniors are voluntarily driving less. Most elderly drivers decide to stop driving on their own, or restrict the amount and distance they travel behind the wheel; more than 600,000 drivers age 70 and older decide to give up driving each year, according to a 2002 study published in the American Journal of Public Health.

How are states dealing with elderly drivers?

State laws vary widely in how they deal with older drivers and licensing. Eighteen states have no requirements or restrictions for renewing driver’s licenses. Some states require drivers over certain age limits to renew in person and pass a vision test; Illinois and New Hampshire make those over 75 pass a road test when renewing their driver’s licenses. In New Hampshire, about 10 percent of drivers tested fail this test every year; state officials believe this system has kept unfit older drivers off the roads. While seniors make up about 15 percent of New Hampshire’s licensed drivers, they are involved in only nine percent of crashes.

The process of aging certainly causes issues that affect the ability to drive. Reflexes slow down, flexibility decreases; hearing and vision may also become less sharp. Memory and the ability to concentrate decline. IIHS found the only scientifically proven way to lower the rate of fatal crashes among older drivers is to beef up the laws requiring them to renew their driver’s licenses in person, rather than by mail. However, eye exams cannot catch a driver with diminished cognitive ability or physical capacity. States have tried a range of approaches, but for the most part they have struggled to establish precise standards for determining when seniors should be kept off the road while being fair to older drivers who remain capable. Age discrimination is a very real possibility.


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