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Are older people safe enough to keep driving?

Don’t believe the stereotype - not all elderly drivers are bad drivers. Little Moon/Shutterstock

In the Western world, people are living longer, healthier lives than ever before. As everyone ages, there is a desire to stay mobile, and in particular continue to drive in order to maintain their lifestyles. Shops and services are becoming dispersed, moving away from villages and towns to larger urban areas. Connections to lifelong family and friends need to be maintained often through long distance travel. It’s therefore no surprise that there has been a huge increase in older driving licence holders, and in the number of miles driven by the over-70s.

In 1975, UK figures showed that 15% of people aged over 70 held a driving licence; in 2014, this figure was 62%. Overall, fewer women now hold licences than men -– but there has been a substantial increase in female licence holders in the older age bracket, from 4% in 1975-6 to 47% in 2014. Correspondingly, 32% of men held a licence in 1975, compared to 80% in 2014. Since 1995, the increase in miles driven has fallen across all age groups by 8%, however for those aged 60-69 and those aged over 70, miles driven have increased by 37% and 77% respectively.

Driving has become both such a necessity and a desire that giving it up has been linked to loneliness and isolation, an increase in depression and health-related problems. One US study even found that non-drivers were four to six times more likely to die within three years than drivers within a three-year period.

Compensating well

But are older drivers actually safe to stay on the road? Deterioration in working memory, cognitive overload, and eyesight, all related to ageing, can hamper driving. Recovering from the glare of a low sun, for example, can change from two seconds of white out to as much as nine seconds. Physiological and cognitive deterioration can also prolong reaction time: over 65s can be 22 times slower than someone under 30, making manoeuvres difficult and potentially making driving dangerous.

UK police data, collected at the scene of road traffic collisions, also suggests there is a slight increase in injuries and deaths from driving from 75 years onwards. However, much, if not almost all, of this increase is due to frailty or fragility. Older people seem to compensate well for changes in cognition and eyesight, mainly by picking and choosing when and on what roads to drive, avoiding heavy traffic or certain types of road, and situations with low sun or at night, for example. This ability to choose when to drive could change though, if we start to work later in life and have less choice over when and where to travel.

Road traffic collisions by differing severity and age group in Great Britain, 2014. Casualty rates for car drivers per driving licence in Great Britain, 2014. Reported Road Casualties Great Britain and National Travel Survey

Changing lanes

Older people are typically linked to a similar group of road traffic collision. Our research, concurs with previous studies, suggesting that older people are over-represented in collisions when turning right, and across traffic, particularly at junctions without signals.

We ran a desktop simulator study to look at why older drivers might not compensate for this kind of collision, and compared younger with older drivers using a mocked-up turning across traffic situation. Older drivers took significantly longer than younger drivers to make the turn, but made no fewer mistakes. In a second condition, we added a time pressure: the action of turning across the traffic had to be completed in 15 seconds. Here there was a significant increase in older drivers making mistakes compared to younger drivers. Though more research is needed, older people appear to be making these errors due to feeling under pressure to make the turn as quickly as possible.

So how do we change the environment to support older drivers? It’s difficult: we obviously can’t get rid of right-hand turns. We could introduce more traffic lights to aid the turn but that would be costly and slow traffic down for every junction. We could change turns to roundabouts, but this takes up a lot of space. We could encourage people to be more respectful of other drivers, but again this is very hard to do.

Of course there are road safety problems for all age groups and older people are certainly no exception. Drivers do need to be aware of their own limitations, however, and alter their behaviour accordingly, even if it means giving up driving all together.

Safety in numbers

We know that testing doesn’t seem to work. In New South Wales, Australia, medical assessments are required for drivers at 80-years-old, and an on-road test at 85. But its collision rates for older drivers (or any other driver) are no different to Victoria state, where there are no such tests. Likewise, evidence from across Europe has produced similar findings.

Education and training could well be the answer but there is limited evidence that they make any long term difference to safety. Though short-term results seem useful, it is likely regular continual education and training is needed for full effect.

A fundamental part of driving is to be wary of other road users and, though there has been no conclusive research to support education of younger drivers on the difficulties older drivers might face, the little study that has been done seems to suggest that it could work in both parties’ favour.

Overall, driving is becoming more prevalent for older people and on the whole older drivers are as safe as other road users, often compensating well for changes in physiology and cognition – but that doesn’t mean we should stop looking for ways to improve driver behaviour or alternatives to driving. In the meantime, all drivers could benefit from being more road aware: older drivers could learn to stay calm, and not panic even when they feel like they are being rushed. Younger drivers, meanwhile, could have more patience with the older generation, and recognise that their driving is a vital link to the outside world.

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