Insurance News

Older drivers may be safer than we think

Posted on: August 6, 2010

Maybe the derogatory “Get off of the road, Granny!” should be altered slightly.

“Would you please take the keys, Grandma?” might be appropriate.

The prevailing wisdom for years has been that older drivers are too slow and prone to accidents. Sometimes those accidents make national headlines, such as the July 2003 incident in Santa Monica, Calif., where 10 people died and more than 70 were injured when an 83-year-old man lost control of his vehicle at a farmers’ market.

This and other high-profile cases have helped solidify national opinion that older drivers are liabilities on the road.

But that myth is starting to unravel, thanks to a recent study from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which reports that older adults make safer drivers.

The study reports that the rates of both nonfatal and fatal accidents have been declining faster among elderly drivers than among younger age groups. Although this flouts expert predictions that accidents among older drivers would rise, it comes as no surprise to many older adults.

“I don’t think that we’re any unsafer than any other age group,” said Irene Skieresz, 73, as she and her husband, Fred, played cards in the Cheektowaga Senior Center. “There are lousy drivers our age as well as younger.”

Fred, 78, thinks older drivers are safer, saying younger drivers are more prone to distracting habits such as eating or texting while driving. For Fred, however, it doesn’t always come down to sheer driving ability.

“I try to be careful, but I think part of it is luck,” he said.

Joe Fasciana, 68, of Cheektowaga, believes that a better perspective on personal obligations lends itself to safer driving.

“The urge to beat the clock goes away when you get older,” he said. “Take the time element out of driving, and you’ve got it made.” Fasciana said many drivers, young and old alike, are in too much of a hurry.

Locally, data from the state Department of Motor Vehicles supports the idea that older drivers are safer.

The percentage of accidents caused by older drivers has been dropping, according to accident data from 2003 to 2008 for Erie and Niagara counties shows, albeit by less than 1 percent for both counties over those five years.

The more conclusive information comes when comparing the number of licensed drivers in older age groups to fatal and personal injury crashes caused by those drivers.

In 2007 and 2008, drivers age 60 and older made up the largest percentage of drivers in each of the eight counties of Western New York. In just about every case, older adults caused proportionately far fewer fatal and personal injury crashes than any other age group.

“On average, older drivers drive fewer miles,” said Robert Stall, a Tonawanda geriatrician. “Because of those fewer miles, they have lower collision rates per driver.”

According to the Merck Manual of Geriatrics, men drive about 19,000 miles annually from ages 35 to 54, but this declines to an average of about 5,000 miles annually by age 80.

Another reason why older adults are safer drivers seems to be their ability to regulate their own driving, according to Chris Widelo, associate state director for AARP New York.

“They will make decisions such as, ‘I want to limit the distance I drive in a certain period,’ or, ‘I won’t drive in inclement weather,'” Widelo said.

AARP advocates the position that age is not the sole determining factor of driver ability. Many physical or mental ailments which can impair road response, such as macular degeneration, afflict people as early as their 30s.

“Then there are people well into their 80s and 90s with no vision problems who find that their ability to react to decisions on the road has not declined,” Widelo said.

Ten states and the District of Columbia have instituted age-based driver testing, which can include a vision test or a reaction test. Some states, including Maine and Maryland, begin their age-based testing by age 40.

But none of these tests can accurately judge a driver’s ability as well as a physician’s exam, and none of these licensing agencies have any data linking their retesting policies to reduced accidents or fatalities among older drivers, according to Widelo.

Older drivers can take advantage of driver safety programs through AARP and AAA that teach techniques and tips drivers can use to offset any driving impairments, such as how much space to maintain when following another car or how to cover the brake with your foot in case you need to stop quickly.

AARP also advocates that drivers have a responsibility to assess their own driving ability. The older driver’s family and doctor should also recognize when a driver’s ability begins to decline.

“We know it’s a difficult conversation, but it’s an important conversation,” Widelo said.

“I think you should know if you’re not capable anymore,” said Wayne Stephens, 64, of Buffalo. Except for a few minor fender benders, he has never caused an accident.

Stephens sees many drivers taking a “hurry up and wait” mentality, zipping around other cars just to gain a few feet before reaching a stop light.

Eileen Coleman-Turner of Buffalo has had her license since she was 23 years old. Now 67, she says that she has never been involved in an accident. Although her biggest driving concern is bad roads, she also thinks that younger drivers should learn better habits.

“We’ve got the law about talking on the telephone, but you still see kids talking and driving,” she said.

Sometimes, taking away the keys puts older adults at a disadvantage, even when public transportation seems adequate.

Although many older adults are able to take advantage of transit services, mental blocks prevent them from getting on the bus, according to Daniel B. Hess, an associate professor at the University at Buffalo’s School of Architecture and Planning.

“Their perception is, ‘The bus isn’t for me or people like me,'” Hess said of his research. “Whereas if people were to give it a try, they might find out it’s not so bad.”

One older adult that Hess interviewed, a man in his 70s from an inner-ring suburb, told Hess that he was aware of a Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority bus route near his house. However, although the man said he could take the bus, he felt stuck at home when his son took the car that the two of them shared, causing a great deal of frustration.

“The idea of going out on your own and waiting on a corner for the bus creates anxiety for older adults,” Hess said. One worry is that they might fall and become injured while unaccompanied.

Hess argued that transit service outreach programs might break an informational barrier keeping many, not just older adults, from using public transportation. One such program could send travel assistants to individual homes to work with older adults in plotting trips to specific locations and even taking the first ride with them.

© The Buffalo News

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