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8/30/2008 - Mature Drivers

What this means is that it is becoming more and more likely that more and more Americans will outlive their ability to drive safely.

According to the American Medical Association, older drivers (also referred to as mature drivers) have a higher risk of traffic fatalities for two reasons. First, drivers aged 75 and older are involved in significantly more motor vehicle crashes per mile driven than middle-aged drivers. Second, mature drivers are considerably more fragile than their younger counterparts, and are therefore more likely to suffer a fatal injury in the event of a crash.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) found that motor vehicle crashes actually account for fewer than 1 percent of fatalities among people 70 and older (heart disease and cancer are the leading causes of death). Proportionally, fewer older people are licensed to drive compared with those ages 20-69, and they drive fewer miles per licensed driver. However, increasingly mature drivers are keeping their licenses longer and driving more miles than ever before.

An AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety study in 2004 found that drivers over the age of 65 are almost twice as likely to die in car crashes as drivers aged 55 to 64. The report also revealed that drivers over 75 were over two-and-a-half times as likely to die in a car crash and drivers over 85 were almost four times as likely to die when compared to drivers aged 55 to 64.

The excess crash rate of mature drivers results from impairments in three functions that are important for driving: vision, cognition and motor function.

Vision - Vision is the primary sense utilized in driving. Adequate visual acuity and field of vision are important for safe driving, but tend to decline with age as a result of physiologic changes and an increase in diseases such as cataracts, glaucoma, macular degeneration and stroke. Glare, impaired contrast sensitivity, and an increase in time to adjust to changes in lightness and darkness are other problems commonly experienced by mature drivers. According to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, a person's eyesight deteriorates to such an extent that ten times the amount of light is necessary to see objects at age 60 as that needed at age 16.

Cognition - Driving is a complex activity that requires a variety of high-level cognitive skills, including memory, visual processing, attention and executive skills. Certain medical conditions (such as dementia) and medications that are common in the older population have a large impact on cognition.

Motor function - Motor abilities such as muscle strength, endurance, flexibility and proprioception (the subconscious awareness of weight, posture, movement, position in space in relationship to the body, based on sensory input from the joints and muscles) are necessary for operating vehicle controls and turning to view traffic. Even prior to driving, motor abilities are needed to enter the car safely and fasten the seat belt. Changes related to age and musculoskeletal diseases (such as arthritis) can decrease an individual's ability to drive safely and comfortably.

According to the federal Administration on Aging, changes in vision, physical strength and cognition can contribute to a loss of self-confidence and ability to operate a motor vehicle. The prospect of losing one's drivers license is equated by some older adults as a loss of independence and personal freedom. Faced with this choice, some older adults risk personal injury rather than give up their driver's license.

State motor vehicle and local law enforcement agencies have different perspectives on the risks of mature drivers. As the driving population ages, states are beginning to enact legislation putting certain restrictions on drivers. Visit GHSA's Mature Driver Laws page for current mature driver licensing provisions in each state.

National organizations, such as the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety and AARP, have created special mature driver programs and promote ways to keep senior drivers safely in the drivers seat. These include:

  • Creating educational materials, programs and services for mature drivers and their adult children.

  • Helping mature drivers become aware of their options.

  • Finding more effective ways to identify driving problems so they can be addressed before they create difficulties on the road.

  • Advising auto makers of vehicle-design options that are helpful for mature drivers.

Supporting funding for traffic-safety improvements such as larger letters on road signs and more visible pavement markings.

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