As sad as these incidents — one of a wife whose husband died when the car she was driving ran over him in their driveway and the other of a woman who backed her SUV over a group of churchgoers, killing three and injuring four others — are, they alone should not be used to paint all older drivers as potential killers.
Let’s face it: Driving a car is dangerous business. Ian Savage of Northwestern University, in his 2013 study, “Research in Transportation Economics,” noted that, “The annual toll in motor vehicle crashes exceeds the deaths resulting from the next most dangerous mechanical device, firearms, by about 40 percent.” The study found that a person who travels 30 miles each day for a year in a motor vehicle has a 1 in 12,500 chance of dying in a crash. Comparatively that makes the risk 17 times greater than for train travel, 67 times greater than for bus transportation and 112 times more than traveling by commercial airlines. I’ll have to remember that the next time I’m nervously clutching the arm rests on an airplane.
But do older drivers cause more accidents than younger ones? The question is not easy to answer. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reported that rate of fatal crashes involving drivers 70 and older declined faster over the past two decades — both in terms of crashes per licensed driver as well as in miles driven — than for those involving drivers 35 to 54.
It is important to remember that there are variables in comparing age groups because, while older people tend to drive fewer miles, most of their driving is in cities where crashes are more frequent than in highway driving. Still, the Insurance Institute reports that the rate of fatalities per capita among those 70 and older has decreased 46 percent since 1975.
Statistics compiled by the Insurance Institute also noted that older drivers are more of a danger to themselves and their passengers than to others. An interesting finding, considering the two recent tragedies in this area, is that drivers 60 and older kill fewer pedestrians, bicyclists, motorcyclists and occupants of other vehicles than do drivers ages 30-59.
It is certainly true that with aging often comes a reduction in physical capabilities that can affect a person’s ability to drive a car as safely as a younger person but it is not true that everyone over 65 or even over 75 is a danger on the road. The problem lies in determining who can be expected to drive safely in most instances and who can’t. Increased testing as a requirement for obtaining a driver’s license may help in this process, but that is a costly and time-consuming solution. And it does not take into consideration the social costs of limiting the independence of older adults who without access to a personal vehicle will have few options for transportation. Just the thought of having to take a driving test every year or even two years would be intimidating for some.
There are other ways that older adults can help ensure they remain safe behind the wheel. AARP offers driver safety classes at a number of locations around this area — including the Senior Friendship Centers locations in Sarasota, Venice and North Port — as well as online (aarpdriversafety.org). Other resources online include the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Mayo Clinic, offering seven tips for older driver safety. They include staying physically active, scheduling regular vision and hearing tests, managing any chronic medical conditions and updating driving skills. The clinic also advises older drivers to plan ahead so that driving can be accomplished under optimal conditions and to consider limitations when choosing a vehicle that is most appropriate.
Family members and caregivers can help by watching for any signs of physical changes that could affect driving ability as well as offering alternatives for transportation.
But the fact remains. Decisions concerning older adults driving are very personal and should be made from the perspective of individual realities with the emphasis on safety. No two situations are the same and general age guidelines are not always helpful. The important thing is to keep the lines of communication open. And yes, it takes a village.