Highway safety experts have long been concerned about a possible epidemic of accidents and fatalities as people in their 70s, 80s and beyond continued to drive. The children of older drivers have worried along with them, sometimes going to extremes to commandeer the keys of their aging parents when reasoning fails to get them off the road.
But new research suggests it may be time for everyone to breathe a little easier and maybe worry instead about young drivers who, as a whole, are more likely than us old-timers to speed and multitask.
Although there are now more older drivers than ever on U.S. roads, it seems there’s never been a safer time for those in the upper decades of life to drive a car. A recent study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that drivers 70 and older were less likely to be involved in a fatal car crash than those 35 to 54.
The study, published in June in the Journal of Safety Research, recorded a 43% drop in fatal collisions among drivers 70 and older from 1997 to 2018. For middle-aged drivers, the decline in fatal collisions was half that, 21%. Although seniors rarely drove as far as younger drivers did, older adults had better safety records per mile driven.
Older adults benefit from years of driving experience that usually translates into better risk assessment and the ability to navigate challenges. Compared with young drivers, they are less likely to drink and drive, speed, ignore road signs, drive in bad weather and drive at night.
The study’s authors credited two major factors for the improved safety record of older drivers: Seniors today are healthier than in decades past, and most are operating safer vehicles.
Still, there’s no question that an aging mind and body can compromise driving safety. Dexterity, flexibility and reaction time decline as we get older.
The most important lesson for drivers in the upper echelons of life is to acknowledge such changes, know how to compensate for them if possible and prepare for when it’s time to retire from driving.
“On average, men have to stop driving five or six years before they die, and for women it’s 10 years,” said Dr. Louise Aronson, a geriatrician at the University of California, San Francisco. “It helps to recognize that things are going to change and think in advance about how you can best remain in control of your life. It’s a lot better to have plans in place than to have your world suddenly ripped out from under you.”
And before family members take the keys from an older relative, they should recognize the adverse consequences of “driving retirement,” Aronson wrote in The New England Journal of Medicine in an essay aptly titled “Don’t Ruin My Life — Aging and Driving in the 21st Century.” Negative effects include increased social isolation, depression and loneliness, all correlated with poor health and a shortened life.
Of course, age by itself is not a reliable determinant of when people should stop driving. People in their 90s who are physically fit and drive often can be better drivers than 70-year-olds who are out of shape and drive infrequently.
To justify continuing to drive, older people might tell others they don’t go farther than the grocery store, they stay off the highway, or they don’t drive at night. But such comments can be a red flag that it’s time to stop driving altogether, Aronson said. Competent driving is a skill that requires practice to maintain — “the less you drive, the less good you are at it,” she said. “Use it or lose it.”
Brenda Vrkljan, a rehabilitation specialist at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, is doing what she can to help older adults continue to drive safely by monitoring where and when they drive and how they behave behind the wheel.
“Older drivers are, all in all, very good drivers,” she said. “But driving is not a right. It’s a privilege we have to earn; we need to be aware that things change as we get older, and we don’t necessarily have the same skills. Driving involves complex maneuvers, and most people outlive their driving ability.”
A program called Candrive, which Vrkljan helped establish, is tracking the driving patterns of older adults to assess what changes might enhance safety. In an ongoing study, she and colleagues are placing cameras in aging drivers’ cars to record their unsafe missteps, like failing to check mirrors before changing lanes, not stopping soon enough or fumbling with a coffee cup. Afterward, the drivers can view the video, offering them an opportunity to bear witness to their limitations.
In Ontario, drivers over 80 have to renew their license every two years after taking a vision test, a 45-minute refresher course on traffic laws, an assessment of their mental acuity and a review of their driving record. New York, on the other hand, has no specific age-based rules for older drivers, who need only pass a vision test every eight years to renew their license.
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