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Older Drivers: Reducing Risk but not Mobility


Americans have long had a love affair with driving; cars and the open road have been powerful symbols of freedom and independence in this country. It should not be a surprise to anyone, then, that most seniors resist giving up their driver’s license, even when there is evidence that the time has come for them to do so. To get an idea of how big this issue is, a few statistics are helpful. There were more than 40 million licensed older drivers in 2015, which is a 50 percent increase from 1999. There are approximately 46 million people over the age of 65 in the country today. That number is expected to double to approximately 90 million by the year 2060. Currently, 80% of the over-65 population lives in auto-dependent areas, i.e. suburban or rural areas. In Georgia, there are more than one million drivers over the age of 65, and more than 620,000 drivers over the age of 70.

While most people agree that there is no magical age at which people should stop driving, accident data and scientific research show that certain risk factors increase with age. These risk factors are: vision impairment, which increases significantly over age 75 according to the Centers for Disease Control; hearing impairment, which also tends to increase with age; and certain health conditions such as dementia and arthritis, which are associated with aging and can negatively affect reaction time and the ability to respond to certain driving situations.

For example, data from the Institute of Insurance Highway Safety (IIHS) shows that in 2008, the rate of driver fatal crash involvement began to increase noticeably at ages 70-74; drivers 85 and older had the highest rate of fatal crash involvement. Among passenger vehicle drivers involved in fatal crashes in 2016, the proportion in multiple vehicle crashes at intersections increased steadily starting at ages 60-64. Multiple-vehicle crashes at intersections accounted for 42% of fatal crash involvements among drivers 80 and older, compared with 20% for drivers ages 16-59.

In fact, intersection crashes account for approximately half of fatalities in accidents among drivers 85 and older. When drivers 70-79 were involved in intersection collisions, they tended to misjudge whether it was safe to proceed; drivers 80 and over simply failed to see the other car at the intersection altogether. Once people turn 70, their crash rates start to tick up. After 80, the acceleration is marked. Octogenarians on up have a higher collision rate per mile traveled of any age group except for teens, and their rate of fatal collisions per mile traveled is the highest of all drivers.


Many older drivers engage in what is referred to as “self-regulation:” sticking to well-known routes; driving only during daylight hours; avoiding highways and interstates; avoiding places that involve maneuvers they can no longer manage (e.g. parallel parking); and staying within a certain mile radius to their home. But what happens if an unforeseen detour occurs, or a sudden bad storm hits? Older drivers may not be able to adjust to new conditions which require rapid responses.

Eighteen states currently require more frequent renewal of an elder driver’s license than the rest of the state’s population. Georgia mandates that anyone 59 years and older renew their license every 5 years instead of every 8 as required of other residents. In addition, anyone 64 years and older must pass an eye exam with every renewal. Mandatory in-person renewal requirements are associated with a 31% reduction in fatal crash involvement rates of drivers ages 85 and older. Georgia requires that drivers 70 and older must renew their license in person.


One possible solution to the dilemma many families face regarding when it is time to take the keys away from an older loved one is to require a driving test at a certain age. Illinois has done just this: drivers 75 and older must take a road test at every license renewal. Other solutions lie in a licensing agency’s authority to renew, remove and restrict a driver’s license. Typical restrictions that can be placed on a driver’s license mirror those many older driver’s place on themselves (see “self-regulation” above): no night-time driving; staying within a certain radius from home; etc. A licensing agency can also shorten the renewal cycle and/or require in-person renewal for individual licensees. It is important to remember that restrictions can be placed on anyone’s license at any age, for health or suspension reasons.


According to AARP, the following are signs it's time to limit or stop the driving of an elderly loved one:

1. Almost crashing, with frequent close calls.

2. Finding dents or scrapes on the car, or fences, mailboxes and garage doors at home.

3. Getting lost, especially in familiar locations.

4. Having trouble following traffic signals, road signs and pavement markings.

5. Responding more slowly to unexpected situations, or having trouble moving foot from gas to brake pedals.

6. Misjudging gaps in traffic at intersections and on highway entrance and exit ramps.

7. Experiencing road rage or causing other drivers to honk or complain.

8. Easily becoming distracted or having difficulty concentrating while driving.

9. Having a hard time turning around to check the rear view while backing up or changing lanes.

Driving is a privilege, not a right. While we tend to see it as a sign of individual independence, driving is anything but an individual act; it affects everyone on the road, and even pedestrians, as the recent horrific accident in New York illustrates. An aging population means that we face crucial decisions in the upcoming years about how best to support the mobility of that population while maintaining the safety of our roadways.


If you or a loved one has been injured in a motor vehicle accident, contact Dave Thomas at The Thomas Law Firm for a free consultation regarding your legal rights.

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