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When are you too old to drive?

In August 2012, a 100-year-old man named Preston Carter backed his Cadillac onto a crowded Los Angeles sidewalk, hitting 11 people, including four children who were severely injured. And while no one was killed, the episode has re-sparked the debate over how to keep the roads safe for – and from – older drivers.

“It’s certainly important for us to evaluate the performance of older drivers so we can get dangerous drivers off the road,” says Elin Schold Davis, coordinator of the American Occupational Therapy Association’s Older Driver Safety program. “But even more important is raising public awareness about the general ability or inability to drive a car. We don’t have the right to drive for the rest of our lives if we’re unable to do so safely.”

Facts about senior drivers

It may be surprising to some, but senior drivers actually are statistically safer on the road than their teen counterparts. According to the nonprofit Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, drivers 70 or older travel fewer miles than younger drivers and account for less than 1 percent of traffic deaths. too-old-to-drive

“In general, seniors are pretty good drivers because they have a lot of driving experience,” says Eli Lehrer, president of the nonprofit R Street Institute think tank.

Here are a few more interesting facts about senior drivers:

  • According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), older drivers have higher rates of fatal crashes — based on miles driven — than any other group except young drivers. One reason for this is that older people are more physically frail than younger drivers, Lehrer says, so an accident may not leave a scratch on a young person but could result in a broken bone for someone in his 80s.
  • According to the latest data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 32.2 million U.S. licensed drivers were age 65 or older in 2008. By 2020, that number is expected to surpass 40 million.
  • According to the NHTSA, 5,288 people 65 and older were killed in traffic crashes in 2009. That’s 16 percent of all people killed on U.S. roads. Additionally, about 187,000 people in that age group were injured in traffic crashes in 2009.
  • According to a 2008 IIHS study, crash deaths among drivers 70 and older fell 21 percent between 1997 and 2006. This reversed an upward trend, even though the population of Americans aged 70 and older rose by 10 percent.

Anne McCartt, senior vice president for research at IIHS, says that “the findings are a welcome surprise.”

“No matter how we looked at the fatal crash data for this age group — whether by miles driven, licensed drivers or population — the fatal crash involvement rates for drivers 70 and older declined, and did so at a faster pace than the rates for drivers 35 to 54 years old,” McCartt says.

According to Davis, the primary problem facing older drivers isn’t necessarily their age, but rather the physical impairments that come with growing older. These can include reduced vision and impaired depth perception,hearing loss, reduced reaction time, dementia and mind-fogging medication.

“It’s really not true to say that a person who is old should not drive,” Davis says. “There are plenty of people over 70 who are perfectly capable of driving. It’s not a matter of age, it’s a matter of function.”

Signs of age-related impairments

When his mother turned 72, Tully Lehman knew something had to change.

“She was very attached to the car. To her it symbolized freedom,” says Lehman, a spokesman for the nonprofit Insurance Information Network of California. “But she just wasn’t able to drive safely after a certain point.”

As her driving deteriorated, Lehman had to wean his mother off her vehicle altogether, and this prompted him to look more closely at the issue of seniors behind the wheel.

“It may feel like snooping, but keeping a wary eye on a senior driver will not only benefit that driver, but other drivers as well,” Lehman says.

Lehman recommends looking for the following signs that a senior driver may need to stop driving:

  • Abrupt lane changes, heavy braking or rapid accelerating.
  • Numerous “close calls” with other vehicles or missing stop signs or lights.
  • Driving too fast or too slow.
  • Tailgating.
  • Trouble reading road signs.
  • Forgetting where they are or where they are going.
  • Easily angered by other drivers’ actions on the road or not aware of others frustrations.
  • Trouble focusing on driving.
  • Limited flexibility, in particular looking over the shoulder.

“Look for the signs, but have the conversation about driving long before your loved one starts showing them,” Lehman says. “It will make it easier on everyone.”

Insuring older drivers

Michael Barry, a spokesman for the nonprofit Insurance Information Institute, says auto insurance rates for older drivers are not necessarily higher than those for younger drivers.

“Mature drivers have more experience, so in many ways they are less of a risk than younger drivers,” Barry says.

According to the National Association of Insurance Commissioners, 31 states and the District of Columbia mandate premium discounts for older adults. All but two of these states (Massachusetts and North Carolina) require older drivers (usually age 55 and over) to complete a state-approved accident prevention course. Moreover, 10 states mandate discounts for all drivers — including older ones — who take defensive driving or other driver’s education courses.

Typically, Barry says, these state-mandated discounts apply only to basic liability coverage. But regulations differ from state to state. For instance, the older adult discount in Massachusetts applies to all auto insurance coverage for drivers over 65.

“Just because you’re older doesn’t mean you have to give up driving,” Davis says. “The only people I don’t want driving are those who are unable to control their vehicle.”

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