DAYTON, Ohio >> Senior citizens, the fastest-growing segment of U.S. drivers, now account for one in five licensed drivers in the region, and their ranks are sure to grow for years to come because of the “silver tsunami” of graying baby boomers.
But the surge in older drivers raises questions about how seniors can stay safe on the roadways as they age and when is the right time to surrender the car keys.
Research shows that people on average outlive their ability to drive safely by seven to 10 years, and experts say it is imperative older motorists avoid driving situations that put them at risk since they are more likely to be injured or killed in traffic crashes than younger drivers.
But Ohio is trying a proactive approach to make sure there are services in place to keep aging Ohioans mobile and safe, said Elin Schold Davis, coordinator of the older driver initiative with the American Occupational Therapy Association.
“Aging drivers is a fabulous thing, because we all aspire to live into old age, so this is not a problem, this is change that we need to respond to proactively,” said Schold Davis.
She was in southwest Ohio this month to discuss the growing senior driver population and what Ohio and other states have done and could do to address their needs.
Baby boomers started turning 65 in 2011, and since then, about 10,000 boomers have celebrated their 65th birthday every single day. That trend is projected to last until 2029.
This helps explain why the number of local drivers 65 and older has increased 14 percent since 2012.
Last year, one in five licensed drivers were seniors in Butler, Champaign, Clark, Greene, Miami, Montgomery and Warren counties, according to Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicle data analyzed by the Dayton Daily News.
One in 13 licensed drivers in the region are 75 and older. There are 5,267 licensed motorists in region who are at least 90 years old.
People are living longer because they are healthier and because of advances in medicine.
Seniors generally are safe drivers because they tend to observe speed limits, wear seatbelts and are less likely to get behind the wheel after drinking than some younger motorists, according to AAA.
But older drivers are more likely to be injured or killed in auto crashes because their bodies tend to be more frail and they are more likely to have medical issues that can complicate an injury, experts say.
Fatal crashes involving seniors have increased in recent years, according to experts.
In 2016, Ohio’s average senior driver crash rate was 15.3 percent, higher than the national average of 13.1 percent, according to AAA. The group says of the 1,654 total drivers involved in fatal crashes in the state, more than 250 were 65 or older.
Driving performance changes as people age, and older motorists may have to contend with slower reaction times and diminished vision, experts say.
But older drivers can make changes to avoid challenging driving situations and conditions, such as not getting behind the wheel when it’s dark, in bad weather or during rush hour.
“A common change is seniors no longer drive at night, because their vision changes are not compatible with night driving, and that’s a very safe change,” Schold Davis said.
Nearly 90 percent of older drivers do not make inexpensive adaptations to their vehicles that can improve safety and extend their time behind the wheel, according to research published last month from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. Common vehicle adaptations like pedal extensions, seat cushions and steering wheel covers can help to improve safety by reducing a senior driver’s crash risk.
“While many seniors are considered to be safe drivers, they are also the most vulnerable,” said Jenifer Moore, AAA spokeswoman. “Our research suggests that most senior drivers are not taking advantage of simple and inexpensive features like steering wheel covers that can greatly improve their safety and the safety of others on the road.”