Insurance News

Crashes Fuel Debate on Rules For Older Drivers

Posted on: July 13, 2009

BOSTON—A recent spate of traffic accidents in Massachusetts has intensified the debate about restricting older drivers, pitting legislators against advocates opposed to age-based curbs on mobility.

As the U.S. population ages, the number of licensed drivers over 65 is projected to double to nearly 57 million by 2030, or a quarter of all drivers. For years, states have wrestled with how to weed out those whose cognitive or physical impairments make them a danger to themselves and others on the road.

Yet no single screening method has emerged that is comprehensive and predictive enough to flag a problem driver before an accident occurs, says Anne McCartt, senior vice president for research at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

As a result, rules for older drivers vary widely, from no special licensing requirements in Massachusetts to mandatory road tests for those 75 and over in Illinois and New Hampshire. And while there is no dispute that mental and physical frailty increases with age, there is a debate over how dangerous elderly drivers really are, compared with the general driving population.

A cluster of recent accidents revived efforts in the Massachusetts state legislature to impose tougher rules on older drivers.

On June 13, an 89-year-old woman driving in the Boston suburb of Stoughton struck a four-year-old girl, Diya Patel, in a pedestrian crosswalk. The girl, who was crossing the road with her grandfather, died of her injuries the next day.

Earlier in June, a 93-year-old crashed into a Wal-Mart entrance and injured several people. A day later, a 73-year-old drove into a group gathered at a war memorial, hurting several people. On July 5, a 92-year-old backed his car out of a parking spot, running over and killing his wife.

A Call for Stricter Rules

Late last month, State Sen. Brian Joyce, a Democrat whose district includes the late Diya Patel’s home, brought the girl’s uncle to testify at a statehouse hearing where he called for stricter rules on older drivers.

Mr. Joyce says he hopes the recent accidents will add urgency to a bill he first introduced five years ago that has lingered in the “legislative graveyard.” The bill would require drivers over 85 to submit to road and vision tests when renewing their licenses.

The bill is opposed by Safe Roads Now, a coalition of advocates for the elderly who argue that age shouldn’t be the sole trigger for tougher testing. Elizabeth Dugan, an associate professor of gerontology at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, says elderly drivers are battling “a pitchfork-wielding mentality” that demonizes all of them after a bad accident.

Safe Roads Now, which includes the elderly-rights group AARP, says all drivers should be more carefully tested, regardless of their age. The coalition backs a different Massachusetts bill that would give doctors more freedom to report people with impairments to the state’s licensing authorities. The bill expands on medical-reporting rules already in place in many states, including Massachusetts.

Looking at the Research

Data on older-driver accidents paint an equivocal picture. A 2007 report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office says “older drivers’ fatal crash rate per licensed driver is lower than corresponding rates for drivers in younger age groups.”

That is partly because older people drive less frequently and tend to avoid tough driving conditions, researchers say. But the GAO report goes on to say that, measured by miles traveled, older drivers “are more likely to be involved in a fatal crash than all but the youngest drivers.”

A 2004 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that requiring people to show up for license renewal helps reduce crash rates. Researchers say those who are unfit to drive decide not to seek a new license out of fear they will flunk if they show up.

California is experimenting with a three-tier testing system that bumps applicants who trigger concerns to a more-rigorous level.

Copyright 2009 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved

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