Whenever there is an auto accident involving an elder driver, there are hysterical calls to snatch licenses from people when they turn 65.
What makes me laugh (ruefully) is that U.S. elected officials are eager to raise retirement age for Social Security and eligibility for Medicare because, they say, we are healthier in old age than past generations so we should work longer. But apparently, for some of them, that doesn't mean we are healthy enough to drive.
Not necessarily, say the people who track driving statistics for a living at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), an agency of the Department of Transportation. They tell us health matters more than age.
And that tells me that unlike elected representatives, the NHTSA is doing its homework and knows that people manifest negative signs of ageing at dramatically different rates. In some cases, a 50-year-old is too debilitated to drive; in others, a 90-year-old is capable; with all the variations in between.
Here are some recent statistics about teen drivers and elder drivers from the Insurance Information Institute website. First, teens:
”Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death among 15- to 20-year olds, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.
“In 2012, 1,875 drivers between the ages of 15 and 20 died in motor vehicle crashes and an additional 184,000 young drivers were injured, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.”
And here are some similar numbers for elder drivers from the same source:
”In 2011, there were 35 million licensed drivers age 65 and over according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
“5,560 people age 65 and older were killed and 214,000 were injured in traffic crashes in 2012.
“In 2012 drivers age 65 and older accounted for 17 percent of all traffic fatalities.
Of course, what's missing from these numbers is information on who is at fault for the accidents and their ages.
Even so, a study reported by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety a year ago indicates that driving is becoming safer in all age groups:
”At the beginning of the study period, drivers 80 and older had by far the highest fatal crash rate, at nearly twice the rate of drivers ages 35-54 and 70-74. By 2012, the fatal crash involvement rate for drivers 80 and older improved to 1.4 times the rate of the other two age groups.
"'Older drivers are not only less likely to crash in recent years, they also are sharing in the benefits of newer and safer vehicles. It also helps that older people in general are more fit than in years past, with better access to emergency services and health care,' McCartt says.”
Also, elder drivers tend to self-police their capabilities which younger people may not. Here is a chart showing conditions under which men and women age 65 and older avoid driving:
I've been avoiding night driving since I first got my license at age 16. I never have been able to drive confidently with car lights from the opposite direction blinding me. And nowadays, I'm not fond if highways at any time of day.
None of this means that one day, some of us won't need to turn in our car keys for our own safety and that of everyone else. And yes, it is frightening to contemplate losing the independence cars provide especially for those of us who do not live in cities with good public transportation.
In the past when I've written about elders and driving, the reasons we might have difficulties have been vague – reaction times slow, vision fades, etc., but nothing specific.
Recently, however, I ran across some short videos from the NHTSA about how specific health conditions can affect driving quality. Here is the general overview video:
As I said at the top, it is one's health that matters more in regard to driving than age. Here are links to other short videos with information about driving and specific medical conditions most commonly seen in elders.
In addition to these links and the others above, the National Institutes of Health website has a large, useful section on elder driving. And the Centers for Disease Control has a good fact sheet about elder drivers.
Not every old person will need to stop driving but I believe we all have a responsibility to monitor ourselves as the years go by and make plans for alternatives to driving before they become critical.
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Marc Leavitt: Packing It In at 75