For older adults, driving encourages independence and mobility. However, according to statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, older drivers are more likely to be involved in car accidents than younger drivers.
Previous studies demonstrate that the greater physical, visual, and cognitive impairments we experience as we age puts senior drivers between the ages of 70 and 74 at an increased risk of being in a fatal car accident. The risk is highest for drivers aged 85 and older.
How does aging impact driving ability?
As we age, we begin to lose many of the faculties we need to drive. For instance. the brain’s production of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that’s produced when doing puzzles, declines as we age, which impairs cognitive ability.
Clear cognitive ability is crucial for a driver because it’s what gives us our coordination, quick reaction time, and motor skills. This is why drowsy driving and driving while intoxicated is so dangerous; both impair your cognitive functioning while you’re on the road.
In addition to cognitive decline, factors such as decreased hearing and decreased vision can also impair driving abilities. Up to 75% of U.S. adults may use Rx sunglasses, but aging drivers may need more than prescription lenses when they’re on the road.
Decreased vision can make it difficult to see oncoming traffic, traffic lights, traffic signs, and pedestrians or animals crossing the street. And while many deaf drivers can operate a vehicle just fine, hearing impairments and visual impairments can make driving dangerous.
Technology is making it easier for the elderly to drive
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of Americans aged 70 and older is expected to increase to 53 million by 2030. This projection has led to concerns about potential road hazards and traffic safety.
However, improving technology has been making it easier for the elderly to drive for a longer period of time. The number of licensed drivers aged 70 and older increased by 58% between 1997 and 2017. But between 1998 and 2017, fewer senior drivers were involved in fatal collisions than in previous decades.
Functional impairments make it difficult for senior drivers to merge, change lanes, or turn. Newer vehicles offer technology that alerts drivers when there’s an obstacle in the road and when it isn’t safe to merge. Some vehicles stop by themselves to avoid accidents.
But collision warning and blind spot monitoring also have their limitations. Experts say it’s dangerous for drivers to rely solely on the technology to stay safe on the road.
Safety features don’t automatically make a vehicle a self-driving car. But some drivers still text, apply makeup, eat, or do their hair (51% of consumers use hair care products daily) while they’re behind the wheel.
“New vehicle safety technology is designed to make driving safer, but it does not replace the important role each of us plays behind the wheel,” said Dr. David Yang, the executive director of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.
“The prospect of self-driving cars is exciting, but we aren’t there yet,” said Yang. “Automakers have an ethical and important responsibility to accurately market, and to carefully educate consumers about the technologies we purchase in the vehicles we drive off the lot.”
That said, while increased safety features have made it possible for elderly drivers to stay on the road for longer periods of time and to drive safely, it’s still important to eventually have that talk with mom or dad about when it’s time to turn in the keys.