Why Roads Are Becoming a Friendlier Place for Older Drivers

Fatality rates among older drivers are falling. Safer cars and better health are possible causes.

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Driving is a freedom that can grow in perceived value as people age. Retirement can mean reduced schedules; aching bodies may limit physical activities; and living on fixed incomes may curb travel, restaurant meals, and other treats. But being able to get behind the wheel of a car reinforces our independence and ability to chart our own course. As we age, our driving skills deteriorate along with our eyesight and physical reaction times. However, we do a good job of compensating. According to statistics gathered by AAA, drivers over the age of 65:

  • Kill fewer motorists and pedestrians than drivers in any other age group
  • Have the lowest crash involvement rates per licensed driver
  • Have the lowest crash involvement rates involving alcohol impairment
  • Have the highest seat belt use among adults
  • The bad news for senior drivers has been that our relative frailty has made us our own worst enemy on the road. We are exposed to serious consequences when we are in accidents. "With the exception of teenagers," AAA says, "older Americans have the highest crash death rate per mile driver."

    Recent statistics from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, however, document major improvements in fatality rates for older drivers. Not only do we drive more safely, but it turns out that we are safer, too. Fatal collisions involving drivers age 70 and older dropped 21 percent between 1997 and 2006. This reverses earlier trends and contrasts with the fatality rates for drivers aged 35 to 54. Improvements became more pronounced as drivers aged, the IIHS found, with the biggest gains seen among drivers aged 80 and older.

    While IIHS is pleased with the trend, its researchers are at a loss to provide specific causes. There are now more older drivers than in past periods, it notes, and they are driving more miles and keeping their licenses for longer periods. Accordingly, it said it had expected these trends to produce higher fatality rates for older drivers, not lower ones. While vehicle fatalities were down across the board last year, the IIHS data are plotted over a 10-year period and can't be explained by reduced driving due to last summer's high gas prices or to an economic slowdown. Safer cars may contribute to the reduced fatality trend, IIHS said. The agency also mentioned improvements in the physical condition of older drivers and improved health care.

    To increase the odds of driving safely at older ages, the AAA has lots of good advice for seniors, including a list of Senior Driving Tips:

    1. Buy the right car. Make sure your vehicle permits easy driver-seat adjustments so you're in proper driving position. Avoid tinted windows because they can cut down on visibility, especially at dusk or dark days. Leather seats are easier on aging joints than cloth, so if you have hip problems, consider them. Big may not be better, as medium-size cars may be easier to drive, especially in city traffic.
    2. Stay active, stay fit. Exercise can retard the aging process and help us maintain reaction times when driving. Maintaining physical flexibility allows older drivers to more easily turn heads, shoulders and torsos as they drive. Being fit also involves mental fitness, so doing those crossword puzzles also can make you more alert behind the wheel.
    3. Limit distractions such as loud radios and conversations. Consider turning off your cell phone -- fumbling to answer a call and keeping your eyes on the road are conflicting tasks.
    4. Right turns are easier than left turns, so it makes sense to minimize left turns. Consider going an extra block to find a left-turn with a dedicated turn lane and left-turn traffic signal. While waiting to make a left turn, don't turn your tires to the left. Keeping them straight is safer should you get bumped from behind.
    5. Increase the space between your car and the nearest vehicle in front of you. AAA advocates a four-second following rule: when the car ahead of you passes a distant fixed object, start counting and see if you've reached four seconds by the time your car passes the fixed object. If not, you're following too closely.
    6. Try to avoid busy roads and rush-hour traffic. It's safer to drive more slowly and easier to do it when you're not caught up in frenetic traffic conditions.
    7. Use your mirrors but remember they can't eliminate blind spots. It's still best to look over your shoulder before changing lanes.
    8. Your eyes probably need a check-up more than your car. Driving is largely a visual skill, and with declining physical reaction times, clear vision becomes that much more important. Here's a statistic provided by the AAA that's worth pondering: the amount of light needed to drive doubles about every 13 years.
    9. Your are likely at greatest risk when you back up, so take special precautions before backing up and don't be in a rush. Make sure your vehicle is fully backup up before turning around and driving forward.
    10. Medications and driving don't mix, so pay attention to drug label warnings and avoid the road when your medications are likely to make you drowsy or distracted.