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Do Older Drivers Deserve Their Bad Reputation?

Some people 65+ say older drivers are more dangerous than drunk drivers

When you were a kid, the talk your parents likely dreaded the most was the one about the birds and the bees.

Now you’re an adult, and the talk you probably dread the most with your aging parents is the one about the cars and the keys — specifically, whether they should give them up.

“Driving in America is all about independence and freedom,” says Andy Cohen, CEO of Caring.com, a website for caregivers. “I think it’s a very emotional loss of independence when someone has to stop driving.”

A 2008 survey conducted for Caring.com in partnership with the National Safety Council found adult children were more reluctant to talk to their parents about not driving than about their funeral arrangements. “Death is inevitable,” Cohen says. “Nobody ever thinks they’re not going to be able to drive.”

Accidents With Older Drivers

Cohen’s website Thursday released the results of a revealing survey about drivers age 65 and older. The survey, conducted in June by Princeton Survey Research Associates, involved telephone interviews with a nationally representative sample of 1,000 adults living in the continental United States.

“What jumped out to us was how many people have been in accidents with seniors,” Cohen says. Based on the survey, 5.8 million Americans ages 18 to 64 were involved in at least one car accident or near miss caused by an older driver during the previous year. About 42 percent of those younger drivers were 18 to 29, another 42 percent were 30 to 49 and 16 percent were 50 to 64.

Interestingly, 13 percent of respondents 65 and older and 14 percent of those 30 to 49 thought older drivers were more dangerous than drunk drivers, while only 6 percent of respondents 18 to 29 and 10 percent of those 50 to 64 felt that way.

It really does fall to the adult children. Law enforcement doesn’t want to deal with this. Doctors don’t want to deal with this.

— Andy Cohen, CEO of Caring.com

When to Take the Keys?

Survey respondents 65 and older were most likely to say they thought family members should determine whether they should stop driving. That age group was less likely than younger respondents to prefer that the government or their doctor or caretaker make that decision.

“The reason we put this data out is just to call attention to it,” Cohen says. “It really does fall to the adult children. Law enforcement doesn’t want to deal with this. Doctors don’t want to deal with this.”

As boomers age, the number of older drivers will continue to grow. The proportion of people 70 and older with a driver’s license represents about 1 in 9 of all U.S. drivers. By 2030, the U.S. population 70 and older is projected to jump to nearly 54 million —30 million more than in 2013 — so, of course, the number of older drivers will also jump.

Insurance claim rates for crashes begin to rise at age 65 and the crash risk per mile traveled, as reported by police, begins to increase at age 70, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). But insurance claim rates of older drivers are still much lower than those of the youngest drivers.

Determining when older drivers should hang up their car keys is tricky. No screening test to accurately identify those at a high risk of crashing has been developed,and no state restricts older drivers based on age alone, according to the IIHS.

Why They Crash

A new study by IIHS researchers found that driver error was the main reason for 97 percent of crashes involving drivers 70 and older for which emergency medical services were called. “Inadequate surveillance” was the most common reason, responsible for a third of the crashes. That entailed failing to look; looking and not seeing another vehicle or failing to see a traffic light or sign.

Fortunately, while there are more drivers 70 and older than ever, they are less likely to be involved in or die in car crashes than in previous years, according to an IIHS study published in 2014. Reasons include improvements in vehicle design and older drivers’ growing preference for SUVs, vans and pickup trucks, whose larger size and weight offer more protection in two-vehicle crashes than cars do, the researchers concluded.

In fact, the rate of fatalities due to car crashes among older people has dropped 47 percent in the past 40 years and is now at its lowest level, due in part to side airbags, which are especially beneficial to older vehicle occupants, according to the IIHS. (Modern safety belts and front airbags are generally equally effective for adults of all ages, the IIHS says.)

Other promising technologies found in the latest model cars include blind spot warnings which alert drivers to a vehicle in their blind spot; rear-view cameras and brakes that automatically slow cars when they get too close to another car or object, Cohen says.

Have the Talk

Despite these new features, some older people will still eventually have to stop driving. If you’re uncomfortable raising the subject with your parents, Cohen has some tips.

“The best way to talk about any difficult topic with a senior is to phrase it in terms of ‘it’s their decision,’” he says. “Are they worried about their safety? Are they worried about someone else?”

Do some research into alternative means of transportation, too. “Most cities have some sort of senior transit,” Cohen says.

Your parents might be relieved by your starting the discussion, he says. “They probably know (they should stop driving), and they’re putting off the decision.”


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