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Senior drivers

Among the safest on the road

Created date

April 21st, 2015
senior driver
senior driver

Seniors have had a bad reputation as slow and dangerous drivers for about as long as cars have been on the road. Perhaps the best-known stereotype is that of a frail old lady, barely able to see over the dashboard, holding onto the steering wheel with a white-knuckled grip.

Scenarios like these contribute to the widespread notion of the older driving population as a transportation nuisance or, even worse, as a menace to other motorists. But several studies, including two from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, show that this reputation is little more than an undeserved myth.

There were a number of positive findings in the foundation’s Understanding Older Drivers and Older American Drivers and Traffic Safety Culture reports, both of which chip away at the bad rap motoring seniors have borne for so many years. 

What the reports say

For starters, the American Automobile Association (AAA) reports determined that more seniors than ever are still driving. As of 2014, 84% of Americans ages 65 and over still hold a driver’s license compared to barely half in the early 1970s. 

There are a few implications in this finding alone. Foremost, it’s a testament to medical science.

“The fact that we’re seeing more Americans driving much later in life, I think, is due largely to major improvements in health care and technology,” says Jake Nelson, AAA’s director of traffic safety advocacy and research. “If you think about it, 80 is the new 60.”

But even more to the point, according to Nelson, is that this finding goes hand-in-hand with another conclusion: older drivers are some of the safest on the road.

“With nearly nine out of ten seniors age 65 and older still driving, it appears that additional years behind the wheel not only make drivers older, but wiser,” Nelson states. “As older adults live longer and spend more time behind the wheel, it’s promising to witness a trend toward a more pro-safety culture with increasing age.”

According to the Older American Drivers report, an incredible 90% of the seniors surveyed reported no crashes in the last two years, with the same percentage reporting no moving violations. Furthermore, 65% of motorists age 75 and older reported “never using a cell phone while driving.”

Medical screenings

Yet, one of the most unexpected results applies to one of the most controversial issues. Nearly 80% of drivers over the age of 75 favor medical screenings for drivers within their age bracket.

Nelson notes that this has been a relatively touchy subject for a number of reasons. First, there’s concern about age discrimination that some people have raised over the years.

But even more significant is the question of efficacy, which he says is at the heart of the matter. As Nelson puts it, when a state focuses on age, they’re missing the point.

“Looking at age doesn’t really have any measurable effect on keeping the roads safe,” he explains. “Age-based testing has been evaluated many times, and every time, the results indicated that it had zero impact on safety.”

Instead, Nelson says states should devote their attention to identifying potentially debilitating medical problems—a consideration that transcends the boundaries of a single age group. This could include serious heart conditions, epilepsy, complications related to diabetes, and the more obvious dangers posed by dementia and Alzheimer’s.  

Nelson adds that states should gear such assessments toward keeping people on the road, not taking their licenses away from them.

“When a state licensing agency reviews a driver, there are almost always steps and countermeasures that people can take to continue to drive safely without additional risks,” he says. “For instance, drivers can take refresher courses, outfit their vehicles with aftermarket adaptive equipment to accommodate disabilities, or seek specialized training from an occupational therapy rehabilitation specialist.

“At the end of the day, we want everyone to be safe while maintaining the independence that driving offers for as long as possible. Based on the trends we’re seeing, I think that’s what’s happening.”


Highlights from AAA’s older drivers reports 

•86% of Americans age 65 and older still drive.

•68% of drivers age 85 and older report driving five or more days a week.

•Nearly 80% of drivers over age 75 favor medical screenings for drivers ages 75 and older.

•Nearly 90% of older drivers (65 and older) reported no crashes in the last two years.

•90% of older drivers reported no moving violations.

•65% of drivers age 75 and older reported never using a cell phone while driving.

Source: Older American Drivers and Traffic Safety Culture (2014) and Understanding Older Drivers (2014), AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.