As America ages, government seeks to improve safety for older drivers

McClatchy Washington BureauDecember 6, 2013 

— Concerned about an oncoming wave of fragile older drivers, the federal government is working to beef up its safety programs aimed at seniors behind the wheel.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, drivers 65 and older are more likely to die or suffer serious injuries, even in low-severity crashes, than younger drivers.

It prompted the agency, which is part of the Department of Transportation, to this week announce a new, five-year comprehensive safety plan. The plan seeks to improve the data it collects on crashes and injuries sustained in them, explore new research on technology that could help drivers avoid collisions, and improve the system for identifying dangerous drivers.

The agency’s administrator, David Strickland, emphasized that the plan was not about labeling an age group of drivers. Older drivers are “some of the safest on our roads,” he said.

At the same time, existing data show that an 85-year-old driver is 1.77 times more likely to get a moderate or more-severe injury in a crash, when compared with drivers between 35 and 54. If the 85-year-old was a front-seat passenger, the older person is five times more likely to get injured.

“Although older people of today are more mobile than past generations, they are still at a disadvantage compared to younger people when it comes to their ability to tolerate injury,” according to the agency’s recent plan. “Aging results in increased fragility and frailty.”

Despite a decline in overall traffic fatalities in recent years, the fatality rate for senior drivers increased 3 percent in 2012, with a total of 5,560 deaths nationwide. In addition, 2012 saw 214,000 older drivers injured, a 16 percent spike from the year before.

Of all Americans, 13.7 percent were over 65 in 2012; they represented 16.6 percent of all fatalities, according to the traffic safety administration.

Between 2003 and 2012, the population over 65 increased 20 percent nationwide. In the same period, the amount of older license holders grew 21 percent, leaving 35 million licensed older drivers.

“Everyone knows that older people don’t see as well at night. But how much do they not see as well?” said Joan Claybrook, former president of the advocacy group Public Citizen and head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration during the Carter administration. “What should be done to change the lighting systems on cars that help older drivers, or in terms of street lighting?”

Claybrook said there’s a good existing foundation of research on older drivers, but she added that better data is needed to understand the relationship between older drivers and accidents.

In the plan, the agency aimed to do that by boosting the quality of crash-causation data and looking closer into the behavior of older drivers.

The agency also for the first time issued safety guidelines for older drivers to the states.

Because state governments issue and control driver’s licenses, there is a wide variation from state to state.

In California and the District of Columbia, for example, holders must renew the license in person when they turn 70. In Florida – which had the most traffic crash fatalities for people over 65 last year – drivers need to pass a vision test at age 80 to renew their licenses.

“One of the big problems with drivers licenses – which initially was thought of as a privilege and now as a right – is that they have been very convenient to use for identification to get on an airplane, for example, or cash a check,” Claybrook said. “And so people go crazy if they can’t get a driver’s license, and then they complain loud and clear. Politicians don’t like to hear that, you know. So they’re willing to loosen the rules rather than get badgered.”

Email: lthorvaldsen@mcclatchydc.com

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