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Monday, July 27, 2009

Older Drivers: Myth vs. Fact

If you are a resident of any of the Sun Belt or Gulf Coast states with large populations of retirees, doubtless you have heard or even commented yourself on what a problem older drivers are and their impact on the flow of traffic. Newspaper headlines about an elderly driver becoming confused and plowing into a group of people increase the call for restrictions or even outright revocation of driver's licenses for the elderly. With the post-WWII baby boom generation reaching retirement age, the country will soon realize the largest population of elderly drivers in its history. With that in mind, it is time to sort out the facts from the myths regarding older drivers.

Certainly there are many cases where older drivers have continued to drive past the point where their physical abilities, vision, and mental capacity allow them to drive safely. More and more adult children of these drivers are facing the agonizing prospect of taking the keys away from their elderly parent. While these cases seem to get all the headlines, the statistics tend to show that older drivers are the safest drivers on the road and their fatality rates in motor vehicle crashes are actually trending downward.

In January of 2009, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) published a report showing that between the years of 1997 - 2006, the fatality rate for drivers 70 years of age and older had actually fallen by 21% even though their numbers had grown by 10%. Older drivers experienced a much bigger decline in fatality rates than drivers aged 35 - 54.

In fact, the most dangerous group of drivers with the highest crash and fatality rates continue to be 15 -24 year-olds who should be at their physical and mental peak. According to a study published in 2007 by the RAND Corporation, researchers looking at records for 2001 determined that people 65 and older made up about 15% of all licensed drivers but accounted for only 7 percent of collisions in the US. Drivers between the ages of 15 to 24 however made up only 13% of all licensed drivers but were responsible for 43% of all the collisions in the US.

The studies looking at the fatality rates for older drivers don't explain why the fatality rates are going down but it is felt that the results could stem from the fact that older drivers are healthier and more fit than they were in the past, they have better access to improved healthcare and they drive newer, safer cars. Older drivers also limit their driving; the less time on the road means fewer chances for collisions.

A Florida law requiring vision tests for drivers 80 and older when they renew their driver's license was cited by a University of Alabama at Birmingham study as one of the reasons for the decline in death rates for older drivers but another study by the British Columbia Injury Research and Prevention Unit was unable to show a relationship between vision tests and fatality rates. One reason is that the common vision test given by most licensing centers is extremely limited in the types of vision problems that it can detect. Researchers feel that drivers who have night vision problems are limiting their driving to daytime and other older drivers are voluntarily giving up their licenses when they realize their vision limits their ability to drive safely.

The complaints about older drivers slowing traffic flow doesn't have much merit either. Studies show that traffic is being slowed significantly by cell phone users. A University of Utah study shows that 18 to 25 year-olds who were tested in a driving simulator while talking on a cell phone had the same reaction time to emergencies as 65 to 74 year-olds. In another study they found that drivers talking on a cell phone "made fewer lane changes, had a lower overall mean speed and a significant increase in travel time in medium and high density driving conditions. Compared with undistracted motorists, drivers on cell phones drove an average of 2 mph slower, were 18% slower in stepping on the brakes, and 17% slower in regaining their speed after braking. They also kept a greater following distance than drivers who weren't using cell phones. That may not seem like much, but is likely to be compounded if 10 percent of all drivers are talking on wireless phones at the same time."

All this isn't to say that older drivers do not cause problems on the road. Obviously, as we age, there are more physical limitations that can affect a driver's ability. Alzheimer's and dementia becomes more prevalent as drivers age. These problems are serious but it is impossible to relate these conditions to any particular age. Middle aged drivers with heart disease or diabetes can be just as limited as a driver who is 85 or older.

Giving up the keys to a car and becoming dependent on others for transportation means that an older driver is giving up their independence, freedom, and dignity. There are programs to help older drivers improve their driving skills and to help older drivers and their families determine when it is time to surrender the keys and stop driving. The following resources may be helpful for older drivers:

Florida Auto Insurance Discount Course for Mature Drivers
Florida Statute 627.0652 requires insurance companies to provide a discount for drivers 55 years of age or older who have successfully completed an approved accident prevention course.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration offers an online brochure called "Driving Safely While Aging Gracefully"

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