A License to Kill? Are Older Drivers Dangerous?

“Older driver”—the mere phrase conjures images of Mr. Magoo obliviously driving over fire hydrants and scattering terrified barnyard animals. In real life, frequent news accounts of elderly drivers plowing into pedestrians—such as an 89-year-old who killed a 4-year-old girl crossing a street in Canton, Massachusetts in June, 2009, and an 80-year-old who did not stop after critically injuring a University of Georgia student in Athens, Georgia a few months later—add to the public perception that seniors are a highway menace.

But are older drivers really any more hazardous than the rest of the population? Surprisingly, while there’s no doubt that the roads would be safer without certain high-risk senior drivers, most research has not been able to establish that, as a group, older drivers present a major danger.

The overall odds that a licensed driver will be involved in a fatal motor vehicle accident in a year are 1 in 3,690The odds for a driver 65 or over are significantly lower at 1 in 5,789, although they rise with advancing age.

Going by age group, drivers 65 or older represent the third highest risk group, trailing those between the ages of 16 and 20 and those 21-34. Drivers aged 35-54 are the fourth highest risk group and drivers 55-64 are the fifth.

But are these results influenced by the fact that older people spend less time behind the wheel than younger people? Studies which take into account the number of miles driven per year provide conflicting results. Some studies have indeed found that on a per-mile basis, seniors are somewhat more likely to be involved in car accidents.

But other studies have reached a different conclusion. A 2005 Dutch study found that when crash rates of drivers of different ages were compared with drivers who drove similar distances, most drivers 75 and up were safer drivers than all other drivers. Only older drivers traveling less than about 1,900 miles a year—just over 10% of all older drivers in the survey—had elevated crash rates.

Similarly, a 2008 review by the Howard County, Maryland, Commission on Aging found that crash death rates for older persons, particularly those over 80, “have been declining over the last 10 years” and commented that “current evidence is that the drivers who pose the greatest risks are the teenage grandchildren of this older generation.” One factor that likely plays an important role here is that many seniors know their limits—they know they don’t drive as well as night so they confine their driving to daylight hours.

Other research on older drivers yields some additional and intriguing findings. For example, when car crashes do occur, older drivers are more likely to suffer serious injuries and die than younger people. Two studies suggest the critical factor when it comes to aging and driving is the “useful field of view”—basically the area in which you notice things without moving your eyes or turning your head. Among older drivers, those whose field of view had decreased were six times as likely to be involved in crashes; a separate 2009 study found reduced field of view correlated with a high likelihood of running red lights. Other factors, such as advancing age and cognitive status, had very little effect on the chances of being in accidents.

Research also suggests that older drivers are less likely to drive drunk than younger drivers. According to the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in 2008 only 5% of drivers over 65 in fatal crashes had blood alcohol content of .08 or higher, compared to 17% of drivers aged 16 to 20 and 32% of drivers aged 21 to 34.

With the US population aging, many states have made or are considering licensing changes aimed at getting older drivers who do present a danger off the road. Tactics include requiring drivers to periodically pass visual screening tests and flagging motorists who have a certain number of accidents over a specified time period and requiring them to take an in-person exam.

Regardless of regulatory trends, it’s clear that most seniors will continue to drive. The percentage of the population 65 or older with driver’s licenses rose from 62.7% in 1982 to about 85% in 2008. Based on the most current data, the odds a person 70-74 has a driver’s license are 1 in 1.1 (91%). The odds are 1 in 1.19 (84%) for a person 75-79, 1 in 1.29 (78%) for a person 80-84, and 1 in 1.73 (58%) for a person 85 or older. And older men are more likely than older women to still be behind the wheel.

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