Government Report Highlights Problems With Older Drivers

APRIL 30, 2007  VOLUME 14, NUMBER 44

Several times over the past few years (most recently in Safety for the Older Driver: Is Skills Training the Answer?) we have reported on an issue of great concern to seniors—the effect of aging on the ability to drive. Now Congress has gotten interested in the topic, if a recent report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) (“Older Driver Safety: Knowledge Sharing Should Help States Prepare for Increase in Older Driver Population“) is any indication.

Senators Herb Kohl (D-WI) and Gordon Smith (R-OR), the Chairman and ranking minority member, respectively, of the Senate Special Committee on Aging, requested a review of state laws governing older drivers. The report details some of the reasons for concern, including:

  • Older drivers are less likely than their younger counterparts to be involved in fatal automobile accidents. However, if the results are recalculated based on number of miles driven older drivers perform much more poorly. Those aged 75 or older have a fatal accident rate higher than the next-highest category, drivers aged 16-24. Those two groups both suffer considerably more than double the fatal accident rate of any other age group.
  • The number of older drivers on the road is, of course, increasing more quickly than other age groups. With the aging of our population, problems associated with age and driving are expected to increase steadily.
  • Older drivers experience a particularly higher accident rate in intersections. More than half of all fatal accidents involving drivers over age 85 occur in intersections. While 37% of all fatal accidents involving drivers over age 65 occur at intersections, for drivers aged 26 to 64 the comparable figure is only 18%.

“Navigating through intersections,” notes the report, “requires the ability to make rapid decisions, react quickly, and accurately judge speed and distance.” What can be done to reduce intersection risk for older drivers? The report details a number of design ideas which might be implemented, including signage well in advance of intersections, larger street name and stop signs, black signal backplates (to make traffic signals more visible to older drivers), and offset turn lanes (to make it easier to see oncoming traffic).

The report also details regulatory steps taken by a handful of states to help ease drivers off the roads when they are impaired as part of their aging. Sixteen states require older drivers to renew their licenses more frequently. Arizona driver’s licenses, for instance, do not require renewal at all until age 65, and then require renewal every five years. Ten states (including Arizona) require older drivers to pass vision tests. Five states require older drivers to renew their licenses in person, rather than by mail (Arizona is one of those states, as well, requiring in-person renewals after age 70).

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