There are 35 million drivers over age 65 on the road today, an increase of more than 20 percent over the past 10 years.
That number will continue to increase. And the number of traffic-related injuries and fatalities in that group will likely increase as well, as they did in 2012 (injuries up 16 percent, fatalities up 3 percent).
Spurred by the numbers, and in the spirit of Older Driver Safety Awareness Week (Dec. 2-6), the U.S. Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) released a five-year traffic safety plan for older drivers, passengers and pedestrians. It's accompanied by Older Driver Highway Safety Program Guidelines for states to implement that "keep older people safely mobile."
The plan includes discussions of frailty and fragility among older drivers and passengers, but perhaps doesn't emphasize this point enough: injuries and fatalities are closely connected with the greater vulnerability of older bodies; we shouldn't infer that older drivers are at fault in crashes.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the exercise is NHTSA's resolve to sharpen the definition of "older drivers." With more people in their 60s, 70s, 80s and beyond on the road, aging itself needs to be better understood, so that functional changes in "vision, strength, flexibility and cognition" can inform policies on driving. Lumping all "older drivers" together is increasingly unhelpful.
The new plan will explore "ways to identify risky drivers and either provide training or other support so that they can continue to drive safely despite their limitations or get them to stop driving while addressing their mobility needs and quality of life." The plan lays out the need to provide driver safety information "to older adults, their family members, medical professionals, licensing agencies, and others who can promote safety in this population."
The emphasis of NHTSA's plan is on improving vehicle safety, and it contemplates a possible "Silver Car" rating system, which would tell consumers how well a car protects older drivers and passengers.
The technologies on the horizon to improve driving for everyone - from crash avoidance systems to self-driving cars - will be especially useful in helping older drivers, the report suggests.
"The technology is evolving so quickly that understanding more about how it can benefit older drivers is really critical," Jodi Olshevski director of the Hartford Center for Mature Market Excellence, told the Associated Press.
AARP's programs for older drivers have just been revamped and a new curriculum is launching Jan. 1. The Driving Resource Center includes: classroom and online driving courses to freshen and improve driving skills; "Car Fit," which helps drivers confirm that all safety equipment, such as seat belts and mirrors, are properly positioned; a look at new technologies that are making driving safer for all; and "We Need to Talk," which helps families have conversations when it's time to limit or stop driving.
The NHTSA plan's connection to new guidelines directing states to address older driver safety heartens Debra Alvarez, AARP senior legislative representative on transportation issues. And she adds that some less obvious things could make a big difference.
"There's currently a whole family of crash test dummies," she says, "from children to adults. But there's no crash test dummy for older adults." NHTSA's research in this area would be an important step toward understanding how older bodies behave in crashes, and could save lives.
Images - Graph: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration; Crash test dummies: National Museum of American History/Flickr
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