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Myths and Realities About Older Drivers

When a deadly crash involving an older adult hits the news, a common response from many in the public, media, and lawmakers is to call for mandatory driving tests for everyone older than 65 years of age. But are older adult drivers more dangerous than other drivers?

Research indicates that some of the safest drivers on today's roads are 65 and older. When they do get into crashes, however, they are more likely than other drivers to have serious injuries or die. That's because they are often more physically fragile than younger drivers, and the types of crashes in which they are involved often leave them more exposed to serious injuries.

Understanding the myths and realities about older drivers is important not only for the general public and lawmakers but also for older drivers themselves. Knowing the facts about older drivers can lead to more productive conversations among families and friends and within communities about this emotionally charged issue.

The following statements are designed to test your knowledge about older drivers and older driver safety.

1. Public safety is significantly improved by getting older drivers off the road.

FALSE: Although it is essential to detect older drivers whose age-related functional impairments place them at risk for crashes, most older drivers are safe drivers. Older drivers are much less likely to drink and drive. Older drivers involved in fatal crashes in 2002 had the lowest proportion of intoxication of all adult drivers (NHTSA, 2002).

2. Most older drivers restrict or cease driving when they experience changes in their ability to drive.

TRUE: Most older drivers appropriately self-regulate. Some don’t. Certain problems, such as declining central vision, may be quite obvious. Cognitive changes, however, may be subtle and reduce a driver’s ability to detect loss of function. Whether changes in cognitive ability are caused by dementia (such as Alzheimer’s disease) or by normal age-related cognitive slowing, some people are not aware that they lack cognitive abilities for safe driving. Objective assessment is needed.

3. Aging is associated with inevitable functional declines that make most older adults high-risk drivers.

FALSE: While specific abilities needed to drive safely—such as vision, memory, physical strength, reaction time, and flexibility—may decline as we age, the rate of change varies greatly among older adults. Many older drivers do not differ significantly in their driving skills from middle-age drivers, who statistically are the safest group on the road.

4. Most physicians know how to identify and counsel older patients who are likely to experience driving difficulties.

FALSE: Physicians commonly state that they know little about the effects of specific functional losses on driving safety, and they prefer that the state department of motor vehicles (DMV) deal with the issue. Some physicians feel that they violate a patient’s trust if they take actions that could result in his or her loss of driving privileges. Others have concerns about losing the person as a patient or facing possible legal action. However, increasingly more physicians recognize their ethical obligation to discuss the dangers of driving with patients whose health and medical conditions could compromise both their own and public safety.

5. When older people come in for a license renewal, the DMV can readily identify those individuals whose driving ability is compromised.

FALSE: Many states do not require in-person renewal of driver licenses. Where required, intervals between DMV visits may be as long as 12 years. Also, in states with in-person renewal, DMV staff is frequently not trained to recognize signs of risk. Road tests are rarely given and are not designed to identify the common safety problems of older drivers.

6. It’s hard to justify improvements to highways that would make them friendlier to older drivers because it’s prohibitively expensive and would serve only a small segment of the population.

FALSE: Quite often, it costs no more to build roads the right way, from the perspective of driver needs, than the wrong way. Many engineering improvements, if made when constructing new facilities or planning reconstruction projects, could be done at little or no added cost. Improvements that make highways safer and easier for elders also make them safer and friendlier for all drivers and pedestrians.

7. Public transportation is an effective transportation alternative for most older adults who no longer drive.

FALSE: Many older adults do not use public transportation because it is not available, not accessible, or doesn’t go where they want to go, when they want to go. Improved routes and scheduling would make public transportation more attractive. Current forms of public transportation are difficult or impossible for elders with diminished capabilities, such as Alzheimer’s disease or physical disabilities. Paratransit, under the Americans With Disabilities Act, seeks to address this barrier.

Reproduced with permission by the American Society on Aging.