In September 2015, an 85-year-old driver was killed when he lost control of his vehicle in Salem, Ore. Police said he was trying to over-correct his steering wheel when the accident occurred, causing his vehicle to flip onto its roof.
Earlier this month, a 91-year-old driver and his 87-year-old passenger were killed when the driver lost control of his vehicle and crashed into a concrete wall near Hartford, Conn. Police say the driver failed to maneuver his vehicle while approaching a railroad overpass, striking the bridge abutment head-on.
As of 2012, there were nearly 36 million licensed drivers ages 65 and older in the United States, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The numbers reflect a 34 percent increase in the number of drivers in this age group since 1999. The same report indicates that the risk of being injured or killed in a motor vehicle accident increases with age, with an average of 586 older adults being injured daily in crashes.
Who is most at risk?
Due to advancements in medical care, Americans are living longer than ever before. A longer life span leads to the desire to remain independent as we age, which oftentimes means the ability to drive ourselves places is a top priority, especially for those who do not live in communities where public transportation is readily available.
The CDC places seniors age 85 and older at the highest risk of being in an automobile accident. Per mile traveled, fatal crash rates increased significantly starting at age 70-74. The increase is attributed to the susceptibility of older drivers to injury and medical complications, which can affect their driving ability.
Age-related conditions, such as a decline in mental acuity and vision, can attribute to the higher risk for vehicle crashes among this age group. Of drivers in this age category, the CDC indicates that men had a substantially higher death rate than women.
Other key facts about older drivers that may play a role in the increased risk for automobile crashes include:
- 80 percent of people in their 70s suffer with arthritis, a crippling inflammation of the joints, which can make turning, flexing and twisting difficult and painful.
- Weaker muscles, reduced flexibility and a limited range of motion are all complications we experience as we age and can restrict our ability to turn a steering wheel and press the gas or brake pedals.
- More than 75 percent of drivers age 65 and older are taking at least one prescription medication, which can impact driving performance.
When Should I Be Concerned?
While the normal aging process has an effect on our driving abilities, there is no set age at which medical personnel suggest individuals consider hanging up their driving gloves and seeking alternative means of transportation. However, there are warning signs that clue us in to when we are no longer safe to be behind the wheel.
The two biggest warning signs include traffic violations and minor accidents or near misses. If a senior driver has been issued two or more traffic tickets or warnings from law enforcement officers about unsafe driving practices, it is time to have them evaluated by a medical professional to determine competency behind the wheel. Likewise, if the senior driver has had two or more collisions or near collisions over the last two years – especially rear-end crashes, fender benders in parking lots or side collisions while turning across traffic – it is time to have them evaluated. These kinds of crashes are signs that depth perception, peripheral vision and even reaction time have diminished, making the driver unsafe.
According to the AARP, there are other common warning signs that a senior driver is becoming unsafe to be behind the wheel. They include:
- Confusing the gas and brake pedals, or experiencing difficulty while working them. The proper way to maneuver between the two pedals is to keep a heel on the floor, while working the pedals with the toes. Drivers who lift their legs in order to move from one pedal to the other may be experiencing leg weakness.
- Ignoring or missing traffic signals and signs. If the senior driver regularly misses stop signs or other traffic warning signs, it could be that they have become inattentive or easily distracted while behind the wheel.
- Weaving between or straddling more than one lane of traffic. Failing to signal when changing lanes, drifting in or out of lanes or driving down the middle of two lanes of traffic are all signs that a driver has become unsafe.
- Other drivers honk at you to speed up or pass you frequently. If other drivers seem to become annoyed at your speed, it could be a sign that you are unable to keep pace with the normal flow of traffic.
- Getting lost or disoriented in traffic, especially in familiar areas. If a senior driver suddenly seems lost in what is an otherwise familiar environment, or has difficulty navigating in traffic in an area they’ve frequented, it could be an indication that they are experiencing cognitive decline. Drivers who are in the early stages of dementia or Alzheimer’s often exhibit this particular sign.
The AARP provides a tool designed to help drivers assess their safety behind the wheel. There is a self-rating tool, an interactive driving evaluation and a professional assessment option. These tools are available on the AARP’s website here.
Taking Action Against Unsafe Senior Drivers
The ability to operate a motor vehicle is closely associated with independence. It is never easy for a senior to hear from a friend or family member that it is time to surrender that piece of their independence because they have become too unsafe behind the wheel. If you’ve approached a friend or family member about your concerns and they ignore your concerns and continue to drive, there are steps you can take.
Medical professionals are not required by law to report patients who have medical conditions which would prevent them from being able to operate a motor vehicle safely; however, some states require doctors to report patients suffering from memory impairment diseases such as dementia or Alzheimer’s. Thirty-three states, plus the District of Columbia, have special provisions for senior drivers. They include accelerated renewal frequency, restriction of online or mailed renewals, vision test, road test and reduced or waived renewal fees.
All state Departments of Motor Vehicles, Highway Safety or Transportation have an office where reports can be made about unsafe senior drivers. Claims are investigated, and a suspected unsafe driver may be required to take a road test. If you know a friend or family member, a neighbor or other senior driver who is unsafe on the road, please consider reporting them for their safety and for the safety of everyone else on the roadway.
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