Questions & Answers
1. How many older drivers are there?
In 2009, there were an estimated 26 million people 70 and older living in the United States. Based on self-reported data from a nationally representative sample, approximately 67 percent of them were drivers. Older people represented approximately 17 percent of the driving age population and about 12 percent of estimated drivers.
2. How are the numbers of older drivers and their crash rates changing over time? From 1995 to 2001, the number of people ages 70 and older increased 9 percent. However, the number of drivers 70 and older grew even more, increasing 15 percent during the same period. In 1995, 64 percent of people 70 and older were estimated to be drivers, compared with 68 percent in 2001.
Lyman et al. reported that in 1995, drivers 65 and older represented 17 percent of the driving age population, 13 percent of drivers in fatal crashes, and 8 percent of drivers in all crashes. The authors estimated that by 2030, drivers 65 and older will represent 25 percent of the driving age population, 25 percent of drivers in fatal crashes, and 16 percent of drivers in all crashes.
Although the number of drivers 70 and older has been increasing, the rates of fatal crashes among these drivers per population have declined since 1997, from 20 fatal crashes per 100,000 people 70 and older in 1997 to 17 per 100,000 in 2005. Number of fatal crashes among drivers 70 and older per 100,000 people 70 and older
3. How much do seniors drive?
Based on 2001-02 data, drivers 70 and older drove 55 percent fewer annual miles, on average, than drivers ages 35-69. Many older drivers limit certain types of driving such as driving at night, in the rain, or in rush hour or heavy traffic. Some groups of older drivers are more likely to reduce or restrict their driving. These include women and drivers with physical, visual, or cognitive impairments However, many seniors do not self-regulate or adjust their driving, even those with high levels of cognitive impairment
4. How do crash rates for older drivers compare with those for drivers of other ages?
Older drivers have low rates of police-reported crash involvements per capita, but per mile traveled crash rates start increasing for drivers 70 and older and increase markedly after age 80. Some caution should be used when examining crash rates per mile traveled, especially for older drivers. Older drivers generally travel fewer annual miles than most other age groups and, similar to low-mileage drivers of other ages, they tend to accumulate much of their mileage in city driving conditions. In contrast, drivers who accumulate higher annual miles tend to do so on freeways or divided multilane roads, which generally have much lower crash rates per mile traveled than other types of roads. Hence, the elevated crash rates for older drivers when measured per mile traveled may be somewhat inflated due to the type of driving they do.
5. How do crashes involving older drivers differ from those of other drivers?
Compared with younger drivers, senior drivers are over involved in certain types of collisions — angle crashes, overtaking or merging crashes, and especially intersection crashes. The most common error made by seniors is failure to yield the right-of-way. Seniors are cited for this error more often than younger drivers. In a recent Institute study of nonfatal crashes occurring at intersections, drivers 80 and older had fewer rear-end crashes than drivers ages 35-54 and 70-79, and both groups of older drivers had more failure-to-yield crashes and fewer ran-off-road crashes than younger drivers. Reasons for older drivers' failure-to-yield crashes varied with age. Compared with younger and older drivers, drivers 70-79 were more likely to see another vehicle but misjudge whether there was time to proceed. Drivers 80 and older predominantly failed to see the other vehicle.17
6. Do age-related changes affect driving ability?
With advancing age specific physical, cognitive, and visual abilities may decline. However, there are large individual differences in the onset and degree of functional impairments, so age alone is not sufficient information to judge driving ability. Still, functional impairments can interfere with driving and may become particularly evident in stressful or challenging driving situations such as merging or changing lanes. Several studies have shown that higher levels of physical, cognitive, or visual impairment among older drivers are associated with increased risk of crash involvement. Many older drivers also take medications, which can impair driving ability at any age but can be especially impairing for an older person.
7. Do older drivers constitute a substantial hazard to other road users?
In terms of fatalities, older drivers are a danger mostly to themselves and their passengers, who also typically are older and thus more vulnerable to injuries. One study found that per licensed driver, drivers 75 and older kill fewer pedestrians, bicyclists, motorcyclists, and occupants in other vehicles compared with drivers ages 30-59. In the fatal crashes of drivers 75 and older, the drivers and their senior passengers were much more likely to be killed than were occupants in other vehicles. However, drivers 70 and older have higher insurance liability claims for damage to other vehicles per insured vehicle year than drivers ages 35-69.
8. Are state rules for driver's license renewal different for older drivers?
A growing number of states have imposed additional requirements for seniors renewing their driver's licenses. The ages at which special regulations are required vary by state but typically begin at ages 65-75. Approximately 20 states have shorter renewal cycles or require in-person renewals after a specified age. In some states vision tests, driving knowledge tests, and/or on-road driving tests are required for drivers older than a specified age. For example, beginning in 2004, Florida requires that drivers 80 and older pass a visual acuity test when renewing their driver's license. An Institute study of this requirement found that the majority (80 percent) of those eligible for license renewal attempted to do so, and only a small proportion of drivers (7 percent) were denied license renewal because they failed the vision test. Of those who did not seek renewal, about half said they thought they would fail the vision test.
9. Is driver education beneficial for older drivers?
There is little evidence of safety benefits from education courses for older drivers, although several organizations offer such courses. National programs include the Driver Safety Program (American Association of Retired Persons), Safe Driving for Mature Operators (American Automobile Association), and Coaching the Mature Driver (National Safety Council).
A challenge in evaluating these courses is to design studies that separate the effects of the course from the effects due to differences in the type of drivers who participate. Drivers who choose to take these courses typically have lower crash rates than those who do not participate. None of the evaluations of older driver improvement programs or educational initiatives have found a reduction in subsequent crash risk among participants relative to comparison groups.
10. What changes in the driving environment could improve safety for older drivers?
Much can be done to improve roadway safety. Improving the visibility of road signs and pavement markings through lettering, size, or color can be particularly important for older drivers who may have visual impairments due to macular degeneration, glaucoma, cataracts, or other health factors. Intersections are a particular problem for older drivers, and countermeasures may include adding left-turn lanes and left-turn traffic signals. One study found that low-cost modifications to intersections (e.g., making traffic signals more visible, adding a dedicated left-turn lane) resulted in a 13 percent greater reduction in injury crashes per licensed driver for drivers 65 and older compared with drivers ages 25-64.
Another approach is to reconfigure existing or new intersections as roundabouts, which reduce vehicle speeds and eliminate some of the most complicated aspects of traditional intersections. In a study of intersections that were converted from stop signs or traffic signals to roundabouts, injury crashes were reduced by 76 percent. However, older drivers favor roundabouts somewhat less than younger drivers. In surveys taken at least one year after the construction of new roundabouts in 6 communities, 65 percent of drivers ages 65 and older favored the roundabouts, compared with 70 percent among drivers 35-64, and 74 percent among drivers 18-34. No studies have focused on the effectiveness of roundabouts in reducing crashes among older drivers who may find them difficult to navigate. Adding design elements to roundabouts such as advanced warning signs and directional signs may encourage older drivers to choose routes with roundabouts as opposed to conventional intersections.