Nearly everyone drives, and many people in the US live to an advanced age. In our society, with its high physical mobility, driving is looked upon by many, including the elderly, as a necessity, particularly in suburbs and rural areas. With age, driving skills tend to diminish. Notably, visual acuity diminishes and reaction time increases. Weaker muscles or arthritis can make it difficult to operate the car controls. Ability to multitask, inherent in driving, becomes more difficult. Other factors such as hearing and memory may affect driving skills. Some medications can affect driving ability negatively.
According to the American Automobile Association, seniors live seven to ten years longer than the age at which they can safely drive a car. Fatal crashes per passenger mile increase dramatically after age 80, due to the fragility of older people. In fact, such drivers suffer automobile accident fatalities 17 times as often as people in the 25 to 64 age range. In 2009, 5300 seniors were killed and 187,000 were injured in traffic accidents. It should be noted that these statistics are mitigated from what they might be by the fact that seniors are more likely to use their seat belts, observe speed limits and not drink or text while driving. The elderly are also less likely to drive during rush hour, at night time, in bad weather or on problematic roads or highways.
Accidents Caused by Elderly Drivers
There are many instances of senior drivers being responsible for fatalities while driving in circumstances where confusion or lack of attention was a key factor. Recently, a 79-year-old woman killed three people while backing out of a church parking lot space. She backed into a group of seven fellow church members and kept going in reverse. She ran over some small trees and eventually stopped when her car became partially submerged in a creek.
In 2003, an 86-year-old man killed nine people and injured 54 when he plowed through a farmers market. He said he couldn't stop the car, but apparently he confused the accelerator pedal for the brake pedal.
In 2009, a 78-year-old woman killed 23 people and injured 41 while trying to park her car at a bank. This appeared to be another example of confusion over the brake and accelerator pedals. The driver plowed through the lines of people at the teller counters. She mentioned to the police that she had trouble driving this car, because the "stop" and "go" pedals are right next to each other. She also complained about a young man who ended up under her left front tire. She said he was screaming vile things and should be arrested.
Elderly Drivers Recognize Their Impairments
In spite of such incidents, older drivers tend to "self regulate," according to the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety. Most begin to recognize their impairments that affect driving, and begin to drive less and only on shorter routes. State laws on this issue vary. Some states require additional screening for driver license renewal after a driver reaches a specified age. A 2013 University of Florida panel, convened under the auspices of the National Highway Transportation Agency, tried to come up with standardized criteria, tests and screening tools for elderly drivers. Their 47-page report, addressing such issues as visuospatial ability, decision-making ability, selective attention and short-term memory failed to reach a consensus.
It seems that for the time being, it's up to elderly drivers and their family members to recognize when it's time to hang up the car keys.