Mature drivers (defined as those drivers 65 and older) represent a growing segment of America's licensed drivers, but face an increased risk of traffic-related injuries and fatalities. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), there were 32.2 million mature drivers in 2008, and that number is expected to rise to 40 million by 2020.
In a 2004 study, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety reported that, compared to drivers aged 55 to 64, drivers over the age of 65 are almost twice as likely to die in car crashes. The liklihood increased to two-and-a-half times for those over 75, and four times for those 85 and older.
Mature drivers often face impairments in three functions that affect driving abilities: vision, cognition and motor function.
Adequate visual acuity and field of vision are critical for safe driving but tend to decline with age. Glare, impaired contrast sensitivity, and increased time needed to adjust to changes in light levels are problems commonly experienced by mature drivers.
Driving requires a variety of high-level cognitive skills, including memory, visual processing, attention and executive skills. Certain medical conditions (such as dementia) and medications that are common in the older population have a large impact on cognition.
- Motor Function
Motor abilities such as muscle strength, endurance and flexibility are necessary for operating vehicle controls and turning to view traffic. Even prior to driving, motor abilities are needed to enter the car safely and fasten the seat belt. Changes related to age and diseases such as arthritis can decrease an individual's ability to drive safely and comfortably.
Changes in vision, physical strength and cognition can contribute to a loss of self-confidence in the ability to operate a motor vehicle. However, losing one's drivers license is equated by some older adults as a loss of independence and personal freedom. Faced with this choice, some mature drivers risk personal injury rather than give up their license.
According to the American Medical Association, mature drivers (also known as older drivers) have a higher risk of traffic fatalities not only because they tend to be involved in more motor vehicle crashes per mile driven than middle-aged drivers, but also because they are more physically fragile than their younger counterparts.
State motor vehicle and local law enforcement agencies have different perspectives on the risks of mature drivers. As the driving population ages, states are beginning to enact legislation putting certain restrictions on drivers.
- Creating educational materials, programs and services for mature drivers and their adult children.
- Helping mature drivers become aware of their options.
- Finding more effective ways to identify driving problems so they can be addressed before they create difficulties on the road.
- Advising auto makers of vehicle-design options that are helpful for mature drivers.
- Supporting funding for traffic-safety improvements such as larger letters on road signs and more visible pavement markings.
The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety has developed the website Driver Licensing Policies and Practices, which contains an online database of state driver licensing policies and practices affecting older and medically-at-risk drivers. This free resource also includes innovative programs that licensing officials, policymakers and others can use to address the needs of older and medically-at-risk drivers.
Excerpted from GHSA's Highway Safety Policies & Priorities [115 KB, 27 pgs.]
O. Driver Safety Issues
O.2 Mature Drivers
GHSA is aware that it is projected by the year 2020, nearly 50 million Americans over 65 will have or be eligible for a driver’s license and almost one-half of them will be age 75 or older.
The needs of mature drivers could be addressed by making highway signs bigger and brighter; maintaining roadway signs and markings to the highest level of accepted performance; passing safety belt use laws; adopting state uniform vision standards; and researching crash protection for mature drivers. In addition, early warning programs should be developed to help mature drivers better understand their driving capabilities. Improvements should be made in the licensing process so that safe mature drivers are kept on the road as long as possible.
The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) should provide technical assistance to states to help them implement the Older Driver Design Guide, and FHWA should evaluate the effectiveness of these improvements. NHTSA should work with the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators (AAMVA) to develop improvements to state licensing processes for mature drivers.