Is Your Elderly Loved One Safe to Drive? Statistics on Elderly Car Crashes, Injuries, Fatalities

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In 2014, the Federal Highway Administration recorded 24.4 million licensed people 70 years old or older in the United States. That equals out to roughly 79% of that age cohort. Yet just having a license to operate a motor vehicle doesn’t mean someone is a safe driver. With so many Baby Boomers retaining their licenses for longer than ever before, there are concerns about the safety of these drivers.

Age Related Decline Affects Driver Safety

 The long and short of driver safety in older people is that the elderly have higher rates of visual, audio, physical, and cognitive impairments than younger drivers, making them potentially unsafe on the roads. Yet age alone isn’t a reliable determining factor in safety. An eighty year old in pristine health can still be safer than a 70 year old driver who has lost sensation in the right foot from moderate to severe diabetes, or a 65 year old with early stage dementia.

Medications are another concern to take into consideration when evaluating an elderly loved one’s ability to drive safely. Many medications have side effects that impair judgment and delay reaction times. This could make changing lanes and merging onto the highway a dangerous situation for not only the elderly driver but the other operators on the road as well. However, according to multiple studies referenced in AAA’s Understanding Older Drivers (2014), even older drivers and their physicians rarely think of the potential impacts of certain medications on driving, and especially how those medications may be interacting with others in such a way as to render driving while taking them unsafe.

If an elderly loved one’s doctor has not brought up the subject of medications and safe driving, it is important for family members to be proactive and discuss the possible risks at the next appointment. The doctor is the expert, and it is also true that sometimes people listen more attentively to information coming from a medical professional.

Taking Precautions 

 Aside from talking with the doctor, many states have provisionary laws specific to elderly people. These provisions require more frequent renewals with mandatory vision and/or road tests to make sure the elderly citizens are safe to be out on the roads. Florida is one state that has made passing a vision test mandatory for people 80 years old or older. Of those who attempted to renew their licenses in 2008, 7% of them failed this vision test and were not able to continue legally driving. In states where mandatory vision testing and in-person renewals are required to renew a license, elderly fatal crash ratings have improved.

Switzerland has a requirement for people 70 years old and older to have a medical evaluation twice a year. The expense of this has added up quickly, so researchers began looking for a more affordable way to evaluate older drivers. In 2015, they found that saccadic eye movements appeared to be a simple, low cost measurement for screening elderly drivers’ abilities to drive safely. Saccadic eye movements are simply moving both of the eyes quickly and simultaneously in the same direction.

For many younger people, this task is relatively easy, but for the elderly, this less-responsive, reflex-type movement can easily become impaired and exacerbated by glare from a car or headlights at night. Those who performed the poorest on the saccadic eye movement tests were mostly participants who were diagnosed with early dementia. One may think that dementia is a risk for driving due to cognitive processing and memory trouble, but the symptom of the loss of saccadic eye movement ability is a considerable risk factor even for those who are in the early stages and haven’t yet been officially diagnosed. Poor saccadic eye movement is an indicator of neurodegeneration and poorer cognitive status even before the symptoms become evident.

Determining Older Driver Safety

 When it comes to their car keys and the freedom they symbolize, many elderly people will claim they will have to be pried from their cold, dead fingers before they will give them up. Giving up the car keys is a symbol of giving up independence, and for many that is too difficult of a decision to make on their own. Denial on the part of the elderly person is common.

When it comes to determining an elderly loved one’s safety while driving, a lot of it is simply looking at the evidence and maintaining good communication with the person’s doctor. Several near accidents clearly caused by the older person’s misjudgment should put up some red flags.  Older persons with Parkinson’s disease, dementias, and some psychiatric disorders are at a higher risk when driving too.

Of course, there are many different safety improvements in newer cars, including higher rated seatbelts, airbags, and even new crash avoidance technology such as autonomous braking systems and lane departure warning systems that may prove effective in preventing crashes. Self-driving cars are on the horizon as well. These innovations may prolong how long elderly people can safely stay on the road.

Meanwhile, there may come a point when it is time for family members to confront an elderly loved one about giving up driving for safety’s sake. Perhaps a failed driver’s test or the advice of a doctor will make the cut-off point clear. At the same time these impartial sources are rendering a verdict on your loved one’s safe driving ability, it is important for family members/caregivers to understand what this means to an aged person and how difficult it may be for him or her to process this monumental life change. Compassion, love, and firmness are all called for when encouraging an elderly loved one to let others take the wheel.

Sources

 Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Older Drivers. Available at http://www.iihs.org/iihs/topics/t/older-drivers/qanda. Last visited June 6, 2016.

Rosenbloom, S., Santos, R. (April 2014). Understanding Older Drivers: An Examination of Medical Conditions, Medication Use, and Travel Behavior. AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. Available at https://www.aaafoundation.org/sites/default/files/Medication%20and%20Travel%20Behaviors%20–%20FINAL%20FTS%20FORMAT%20copy.pdfhttps://trid.trb.org/view.aspx?id=1308463. Last visited June 8, 2016.

Schmitt, K-U., Seeger, R., Fischer, H., Lanz, C., Muser, M., Walz, F., Schwarz, U. (February 9, 2015). Saccadic eye movement performance as an indicator of driving ability in elderly drivers. Swiss Medical Weekly, 145:w14098. Available at http://www.smw.ch/content/smw-2015-14098/. Last visited June 6, 2016.

 

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