Road rules: helping the elderly drive safely

A new study outlines risks, and highlights some solutions, for growing population of older drivers.

In Los Angeles, 87-year-old Russell Weller was arraigned last month for the tragic deaths of 10 people in July, when his car sped out of control through a crowdedfarmers' market. In Phoenix, 68-year-old Bishop Thomas O'Brien was convicted Tuesday of killing a jaywalker whom his defense attorney said he didn't see, even after part of his windshield was smashed. And one of the most extensive studies of senior drivers to date, released Wednesday, concludes that older drivers pose significant dangers to themselves and others, due to everything from slower perception to the effects of medication.

Together, they're signs of a road-safety challenge that is rising as the baby-boom generation begins to reach retirement age and as Americans live longer in general. Renewed attention to the risks of that graying driving population is likely to spur changes, from more license testing and education in new technologies to the redesigning of roads, signs, and lighting.

"The group over 65 is the largest-growing cohort in America, and we have to come to grips with what that means for transportation," says Peter Kissinger, president of the American Automobile Association (AAA) Foundation for Traffic Safety, which sponsored the study.

The survey of 4 million injury crashes over 25 years in Texas is one of the largest yet, and it reveals challenges from slower response time in braking to diminished visual range to physical frailty. The probability of death or injury in crashes increases with the driver's age, as does the likelihood of a left-turn crash or lapses in perception that could contribute to a crash, according to the study.

Those discoveries aren't new, but they lay groundwork that could lead to better public and family policies - or even change the way cars are manufactured.

"This is an important study in pointing up how many things have changed for older drivers in the past two decades, but still there is a yawning gap in what needs to be don," says Maureen Mohyde, director of the corporate gerontology group for The Hartford Financial Services, which offers car insurance to members of AARP.

The report showed that the average person requires ten times the amount of light to see an object at age 60 as at age 16. It also found that seniors are more likely to be involved in left-turn crashes: An 85-year-old, for example, is 50 percent more likely to be involved in such a crash than someone between 55 and 64.

Such conclusions point to possible policy changes, such as enhanced lighting for freeways, wider turn lanes, and longer left-turn traffic signals. And those are increasingly urgent, analysts say: If trends continue, both the number of drivers over 65 and the number of highway deaths - now 5,500 annually - will double by 2030, according to Kissinger.

"High-profile crashes like Weller and O'Brien are really just anomalies that grab the public attention," he says. "The more important lesson is that they spotlight the growing demand for enhancements of our entire licensing and driving system."

Since the Weller crash in Santa Monica last July, public interest and outrage have prompted calls for changes in state laws on licensing the elderly. They've also led to voluntary moves by elder drivers and their families to get needed lessons.

"We've seen a dramatic upsurge in interest and participation in our elder-driver programs" says Arline Diller, traffic-safety manager for the Auto Club of Southern California. Such schools offer advice, options for those who no longer drive, and tips in spotting high-risk drivers.

Although the latest findings are considered a welcome addition to decades of research, some say the political will to change laws and obtain funding often evaporates as high-profile episodes fade. Many say a national approach would lead to more uniform testing standards - but that states are loath to give up control.

Both Florida and California have commissions looking into the issue, but California findings and recommendations are not due until June, and the state is working under a record budget.

"The overwhelming pattern is that the public gets interested for a short period of time, and practical changes run into funding difficulties," says Nancy Thompson of the AARP. "What concerns me with reports like these is the danger of blaming the elderly." Another danger, analysts say, is a focus on statistics rather than a close examination of the habits and skills of those without driving problems - the vast majority of elderly drivers - and the development of policy from that. Some call for a more comprehensive analysis - cradle-to-grave scrutiny of how and where people live, work, and recreate.

"There have been countless studies over the decades of problems with older drivers, but little public focus on what we are all going to do when we either choose or are forced to drive less," says Joe Coughlin, director of the MIT AgeLab, a research center on aging and technology in Cambridge, Mass. Such dialogue would cover city planning, public transportation, and building patterns from housing to hospitals and schools. "Unless we start thinking both personally and publicly about our dependence on the car for transportation and identity, we could be sentencing ourselves to isolation" as driving skills deteriorate, says Mr. Coughlin. "This is not about problems with older drivers, it's about a gross failure of national transportation policy."

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