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Are Older Drivers a Hazard on Our Highways?

The baby boom generation is reaching retirement age and, as this population boom enters their sunset years, there is a fear that these drivers will slow traffic even more and that their diminished physical and mental abilities will make the roads even more dangerous. In order to determine the best course for keeping the roads safe, it might be helpful to look at the studies and data regarding older drivers.

It is true that many older drivers continue to drive in spite of physical and mental limitations that should have required them to give up driving. Adult children of elderly drivers are increasingly facing the prospect of taking away the keys from their 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.

These studies didn’t look at the reasons for the decline in fatality rates but some researchers felt that results could be explained by the fact that older drivers today are more physically fit and have better access to health care than earlier generations. Newer, safer cars may also contribute to the decline in fatality rates. Older drivers also limit their driving; the less time on the road means fewer chances for collisions. Clackmann Weather

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. According to studies, one of the major causes of slower traffic is the use of cell phones. A study by the University of Utah that tested 18 to 25 year old drivers in a driving simulator showed that, while using a cell phone, they had the same reaction times as drivers in the 65 to 74 year age group. 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.

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