Skip to content
Guest Thinkers

The Seasonal Passions of the Older Driver Debate: Safety, Personal Mobility & the Policy Road Ahead

It’s that time of year again. It’s summer time and olderdrivers are in the news. Perennially trapped between humor and horror thedebate on older drivers continues in every state house, newspaper, radio talk showand television newscast. One accident translates into a multitude oflegislative initiatives, passionate speechmaking, and a plethora of initiativesaround older driver licensing.

In the background, barely heard above the predictable politicaldebate, is a new report (June 19, 2010) released from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety(IIHS).  The report aptly titled, Contrary to Expectations, reveals moreevidence of what traffic safety and aging experts already know; but it is rarelyheard above the seasonal attempt to translate individual accidents into anational policy problem. Older drivers are overwhelmingly safe drivers.  According to the IIHS report (IIHS data presented left) – fatalcrashes involving operators 70 and older dropped 37% over the last 10 years. Infact, the data show that even non-fatal accidents dropped for older drivers.A surprise when there is a record number of older operators on the nation’sroads and when, over the same period, accidents involving drivers 35-54 yearsof age increased.

A little over a decade ago (July 1998), research sponsoredby the US Department Transportation and the US Department of Health and Human Services was conducted and led by accomplished transportation researcher Jon Burkhart(see cite below). The study forecasted that by  2030 older driverfatalities might account for approximately 20,000 traffic deaths per year, – which is the same numberof fatalities attributed to drunk drivers today. So far, so good; these numbershave not come to pass – and, with any luck, the trend line will continue downward.
Despite forecasts portending increased fatalities plus political rhetoric to make a single, always horrific, tragedy define nearly 20%of the driving population as unsafe  based solely upon their birthday – safety hasimproved. Why is this?

There are at least three reasons:

Self-regulation:Older drivers are safe drivers. Drivers 50 and older are the most likely toself regulate their driving. Older drivers are less likely to drive atnight–compensating for diminished night vision. Older drivers are less likelyto drive in poor weather, high-traffic, or other conditions where they feelless confident. Without exception older drivers are safe drivers because theirexperience, judgment and behavior have translated into safety for them andeveryone else on the road. See the video of my colleagues and research partners Dr. Lisa D’Ambrosio, MIT AgeLab and Jodi Olshevski, The Hartford Advance 50 Team.

Improved Infrastructure: The US Department Transportation’s (USDOT)Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and state departments of transportation have developed guidance (See FHWA’s Older Driver Highway Design Handbook) and funded improvements in infrastructure thatimprove safety for older drivers, older pedestrians and travelers of any age.These include road design to ease merging, improved signage to enhancereadability and reduce distraction, placement of traffic islands to providepedestrian safety zones, and better intersection geometry and signaling to reduceleft-turn/oncoming traffic accidents.

Improved Vehicles:Today’s vehicles are not only safer–they are ‘smarter’. Intelligenttransportation systems have transformed what was once a mechanical device onwheels into a computer that moves. ‘Active’ intelligent systems that sense apotential accident and take action to mitigate impact are off the drawing boardand in the showroom. Today’s new cars have better lighting systems to improvecontrast and reduce glare, structural design improvements that enhance operatorvisibility and continued improvements in ‘passive’ safety measures suchas airbags, seatbelts and other systems – all contributing to improved safetyfor older operators, passengers, pedestrians and the traveling public of ANY age.

But wait! Before even modest success is declared – there isconsiderable work ahead. The seasonal passions of the older driver debate mustbe translated into lasting transportation policy innovation that will improve accessibility, safety and mobility across the lifespan.

Aging, Policy Innovation & the Road Ahead

Four policy challenges that require individual, privatesector and public collaboration demand attention today to address safety andmobility in the future.

Driver Health, NotAge: What remains new territory in the older driver debate is the issue ofdriver health. Research and common sense show that birthdays do not kill; health conditions do. Every ‘older driver accident’ has shown the driver to bemanaging (often poorly) a chronic disease or undergoing a medical treatment ortaking a medication that impacts driver performance, or operating withdiminished function that family and friends saw, but did not act upon (See resources developed by The Hartford Advance 50 Team and MIT AgeLab for families & the driving decision). Thedramatic increase in chronic disease across the lifespan (typically impactinghealth and function in the very early 40s) must become a top concern forindividuals and policymakers to ensure safety on the nation’s roadways. Explosivegrowth in diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other chronic conditions, alongwith the medications to treat them, threaten recent improvements in trafficsafety. Individuals, policymakers, transit operators, commercial shippers,transportation firms, pharmaceutical manufacturers, and insurers should provideagenda status to health issues, not age, and its impact on safety.

New Technology & Driver Learning: Older drivers are safe drivers because of theirexperience. Four, five, six, decades of experience have formed a mental model ofhow a car works, how traffic behaves, and how to safely operate a vehicle. From thedriver’s seat, the car has gone remarkably unchanged for several decades. Thisis changing, and changing fast. Technologies that may have recently improved safety continue to change and may beintroducing new risks in the near future. The introduction of intelligentsystems to the vehicle is changing how drivers (of any age) interface withinformation and operate the car, and demanding a new model of technology learning,trust, and adoption. Many of the systems being introduced to the vehicle suchas night vision, heads-up displays, communications and other applications are drawnfrom commercial aviation and military aircraft. Drivers, regardless of age, arenot commercial or military pilots. Indeed, they are not trained or ‘checked out’ on newsystems as they are introduced to the ‘driver cockpit’. Taking delivery on thecar today at your local showroom is the same experience your father andgrandfather experienced several decades ago. Despite the breeze of new carsmell and the joy of taking delivery on your second most expensive asset, theoperation, dashboard, and driving task is being changed by the introduction ofnew technologies. This requires action by insurers, manufacturers, and thegovernment to develop new standards for driver education, guidance on the safe integrationof these devices into the vehicle, and a reevaluation of the risks thesesystems manage, as well as the new hazards they may present.

Real TransportationAlternatives:  For some,driving may no longer be desirable or a choice. The older driver debate haslimited the discussion to how old is oldand what is the perfect test? Whathas been lacking across every jurisdiction has been a considered discussion onthe development of real transportation alternatives. Systems that require a day,a week, and in some cases, two weeks of scheduling ahead for a haircut, to visit afriend or to go window-shopping do not provide true alternatives. Nearly 70% ofAmericans over age 50 live in suburban or rural areas where publictransportation does not exist or does not serve well. Any discussion ofmobility and safety must be comprehensive and include seamless transportationalternatives for people of any age so that driving is a choice, not a lifeline.

Livable Communities:The baby boomers are the product andperpetuators of communities that are designed around the car. Suburbia has seenhome size grow, but another feature that has grown has been the movement of thecar into the home. As ‘automobility’ has become critical to connectingall of life’s activities we have seen the car move from sitting on a grass-gravelpath near the home, to a paved driveway leading to a single stall garage next to the home,to a two-stall garage connected to the home, to (for some) a three-stall cargarage that is the home.  As thenation ages, real estate developers, regional planners and local zoningauthorities must transform today’s communities from places where we park ourcars and sleep, into livable communities that enable safe access to a widerange of life’s activities using any mode of transportation from walking, tobiking, to public transportation – and, yes – to even the automobile. US Department of Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood has set out a number of livability principles to guide future transportation, environmental, and housing investment creating, what he refers to as a “window of opportunity to think differently about transportation and propose bold, new approaches to improve the livability of our nation’s communities”

Smarter faster: the Big Think newsletter
Subscribe for counterintuitive, surprising, and impactful stories delivered to your inbox every Thursday

In the United States driving is synonymous with independenceand freedom. Policymakers and the media would do a great and lasting publicservice to translate this summer’s seasonal discussion of older drivers – ‘totest, or not to test’ – into serious policy action to ensure accessibility, safety andmobility across the lifespan.

Resources and Further Reading

For additional information and research on these and related topics, please visit the MIT AgeLab and the MIT-led US Department of Transportation-funded New England University Transportation Center.

Burkhardt, Jon, Arlene M. Berger, Michael Creedon, and Adam T.McGavock. 1998. Mobility and Independence: Changes and Challenges forOlder Drivers. Ecosometrics Inc., Bethesda, Maryland.

Coughlin, Joseph. July 29, 2009. Driving Debate Fails the Vision Test, Boston Globe


Up Next