TUCSON — Senior drivers are causing a larger number of auto accidents, and the number is expected to increase in the years ahead.
The number of licensed elderly drivers is the highest it has ever been, and that number is predicted to skyrocket as the Baby Boomer generation continues to age. Policymakers are worried that this growing elderly driving population will lead to surges in traffic accidents and, subsequently, injury to property and person.
There were 36.8 million licensed senior drivers in 2013 — a 27 percent increase from 2004. America’s 65-and-older population is expected to reach 83.7 million by 2050, almost double from the 2012 number of 43.1 million, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
According to Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, per mile traveled, fatal crash rates increase remarkably beginning at age 70-74 and peak among drivers 85 and older. In 2013, 3,587 people 65 years of age and older died in motor vehicle traffic crashes while behind the wheel, reported the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The NHTSA also stated that senior drivers made up 17 percent of all fatal traffic accidents and 10 percent of all people injured in traffic accidents during 2013. In comparison to 2012, fatalities among older adults increased by 1 percent, while the number of older people injured increased by 4 percent in 2013.
Looking at miles driven, drivers age 16-29 are responsible for the largest majority of car crashes in the United States, with a slow decline as drivers get older. The car crash rate spikes slightly and begins to increase around age 70, continuing to increase past age 85.
Strikingly, fatalities per driver and per mile increase significantly as the age of the driver increases. From 2008-09, drivers over the age of 80 were responsible for causing more deaths by car collisions among all age groups, according to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.
“All my friends still drive. I had a friend who drove until he was 87,” said Harve Golden, 80, of Tucson.
Golden recently bought a new car and was working on getting the title from the local MVD. Golden wants to retain his ability to operate a motor vehicle for as long as possible.
“Independence is a big (factor). I live alone. I’d have to walk everywhere, which isn’t fun. And I’m a healthy person, so I intend on driving as long as I can.”
If driving privileges are taken away from senior drivers, some older adults have family or friends close by who are willing to help them get around. But a number struggle with being dependent on friends and family for rides.
Gail Buchanan, 82, drives today on a regular basis without any restrictions. As someone who has had to give up her license in the past due to physical complications, she has experienced the struggle of having to give up her independence.
“If I had to again, I would give up my license. But it’s very hard,” she said.
Buchanan broke her wrist about two years ago, ending her driving for a few months.
“It affected my day-to-day life by making it harder running errands and getting to doctors’ appointments. We have a daughter (who lives in Tucson) who would help out, as well as granddaughters, but still, you don’t want to bother anyone,” she said.
Having to rely on others for transportation is a huge reason why older adults want to be able to stay on the roads. But when does this desire for independence become secondary to the safety of the public?
The most common reason why elderly drivers would willing give up their license is self-admittance of unsafe driving habits. Though statistics show that senior drivers are more at risk to causing crashes and fatalities behind the wheel, most states still allow older adults to self-regulate their driving abilities. Only when license renewal testing requirements are not met do drivers actually lose their driving privileges.
Vision test failure is the reason preventing most senior drivers from retaining their license. In 2008, the University of Alabama at Birmingham teamed up with the IIHS to conduct a study of Florida vision test requirements for drivers 80 and older. The study found that 80 percent of those eligible to renew their licenses attempted to do so, and 7 percent of them were denied renewal because they failed the vision test. Of those who did not seek renewal, about half said they thought they would fail the vision test.
The state of Arizona requires adults over the age of 60 to renew their license every five years, and part of that renewal processes involves a vision test.
“The two most common causes of vision loss in America are age-related macular degeneration (AMD) and glaucoma,” said Brian S. McKay, Ph.D. “Both increase in the population as it ages. While there are several good treatments to slow vision loss from glaucoma, we have very little to treat AMD.”
The required vision to pass for a successful renewal is 20/40.
Even if vision tests are passed, senior drivers may also receive certain restrictions on their licenses – driving only in daylight, no driving during rush hours – depending on the results of their test.
AAA and AARP both offer online and in-person safe driving courses for senior drivers. These courses help re-educate older adults on modern road safety and driving practices.
Keeping elderly drivers visually healthy can be a huge factor, McKay said.
“Smoking multiplies the odds that a person will develop AMD. If you’re at risk of AMD, don’t smoke. Several studies have suggested that light exposure may increase risk of AMD, so wear sunglasses, especially here in Arizona.”
Shelby Edwards is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at email@example.com.