Safety for Older Drivers

by Tracy Zafian, Research Fellow

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AAA has estimated that by 2030, there will be more than 60 million people in the U.S. age 65 & over licensed to drive. (Photo source: IIHS.org, credit istock.com/KLH49)

Most people outlive their ability to drive by seven to ten years. This important statistic from the American Automobile Association (AAA) was cited by Michele Ellicks of the Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles (RMV) at the April 2018 MassDOT Innovation and Mobility Exchange, at a session on Safe Driving for Seniors and People with Disabilities.

There were more than 40 million drivers age 65 years and older in the U.S. in 2015, according to the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). This population is expected to increase significantly in coming decades. AAA has estimated that by 2030, there will be more than 70 million people in the U.S. in this age group with approximately 85-90% of them licensed to drive. In 2016, 18% of all traffic-related fatalities in the U.S. involved people age 65 and older. In Massachusetts, 16% (133) of all traffic fatalities in the state involved people age 65 and older. Over half (54%) of those fatalities were for those age 65 to 74; the other 46% were for those age 75 and older.

Nationally, the fatality rates per 100,000 people are higher for males than females and generally higher for people age 80 and over than for those 65-79 (see chart below). The death rates increase with age because older people have more physically frail and are more likely to die from injury, as found in this study from John Hopkins School of Medicine. Older drivers are also more likely to be involved in at-fault crashes as a result of physical or cognitive impairments. The fatality rates for females fall slightly from age 80-84 to age 85 and older because females limit or cease their driving in their upper 80s more often than males.

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Source: Insurance Institute for Highway Safety Analysis of National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) FARS (Fatality Analysis Reporting System) 2016 data, released December 2017. Viewed at http://www.iihs.org/iihs/topics/t/older-drivers/fatalityfacts/older-people.

Intersections can be especially difficult for older drivers to navigate. Extensive research conducted at the University of Massachusetts Amherst on driving simulators and on-road has shown that older drivers do not look as often as other drivers towards their turning direction or other vehicles when turning at T-intersections or four-way intersections. As a result, older drivers may be more likely to be involved in traffic crashes.

UMass Amherst researchers working under the supervision of Dr. Michael Knodler are currently investigating older drivers’ crashes during left-turns at signalized intersections; using data gathered from their vehicles and the drivers themselves as part of the SHRP2 (Strategic Highway Research Program 2) project to collect naturalistic driving data on over 2,300 drivers at six cities around the country. The researchers hope this study will help with understanding why and how left turns across path crashes at intersections are more likely for older drivers.

In previous older driver research conducted at UMass Amherst, Dr. Matthew Romoser conducted one study on drivers age 72 to 87 and a comparison group of drivers age 25 to 55 for his dissertation, and then a follow-up study with the older drivers as a post-doctoral researcher. Romoser’s first study, conducted with his advisor, Dr. Donald Fisher, UMass Transportation Center (UMTC) Research Affiliate and UMass Amherst Human Performance Laboratory (HPL) Director, found that the older drivers took fewer roadway glances towards potential hazards than younger drivers while turning. Romoser also found that providing active training and customized feedback regarding their driving to the older participants led to significant improvements in their glances both in a driving simulator and on-road, towards potential hazards as they approached and went through intersections. Romoser’s follow-up study, conducted two years after the first study with the same older drivers, found that those drivers who received active training in the first study still made 50% more glances towards potential hazards than they did before training two years earlier.

The benefits of training programs to help older drivers stay safe at intersections was further examined in a study by past HPL researchers Dr. Siby Samuel and Dr. Yusuke Yamani, with Dr. Fisher. This research found that training programs, such as Dr. Romoser’s, which help improve older drivers’ glance behaviors at intersections, can be effective even though they don’t address underlying declines in cognitive, visual, and motor functions for these drivers as they age. The researchers found some evidence that these training programs are effective because, through the training, drivers learn to decouple their hand, foot, and head movements at intersections, and that doing so may help reduce the impacts of cognitive, motor, and visual declines on their driving.

This research is promising and suggests that some types of training may help older adults safely continue to drive longer than they would be able to otherwise. In Massachusetts, various measures have been taken to promote older driver safety. Under state law, for drivers age 75 and over driver license renewals must be done in person and they include an eye exam. The RMV holds free workshops around the state on issues facing older drivers, including if and when an older person should give up driving.

For adults who do stop driving for safety reasons, MassMobility is a state initiative to improve the transportation options for adults who don’t have a car. The options include both traditional transportation providers such as buses and paratransit and also newer alternatives such as Uber, Lyft, and other Transportation Network Companies (TNCs). A number of sessions at this year’s Innovative and Mobility Exchange discussed alternatives for meeting transportation needs for this population. Options included using TNCs to provide rides outside of regular bus service hours and TNCs partnering with senior centers and other agencies to offer rides to people who otherwise might not be able to access (because they don’t have a smartphone or credit card) services from companies such as Uber and Lyft.

Dr. Nina Silverstein, UMTC Affiliate and Professor of Gerontology at UMass-Boston, recently co-authored a book, Introduction to Senior Transportation: Enhancing Community Mobility and Transportation Services (2018). The book provides an overview of the mobility needs of older adults and the “transportation methods that do and do not currently meet the needs and wants of senior passengers.”

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