Elderly Issues Home

Senior Citizen Drivers – What’s the Truth?

Santa Monica California. Wednesday, July 16, 2003. An 86 year old driver plowed through a crowded farmers market killing 10 people and injuring 20. The driver of the vehicle, Russell Weller, said he might have hit the accelerator instead of the brakes.

This tragic story and others like it have sparked a nationwide debate in recent years as to whether or not senior citizens are more at risk for being involved in crashes because of diminished capacity.

The problem is that there are no easy answers.

When an event, such as the Santa Monica accident occurs, the media oftentimes makes the incident more of a crisis than it really is. That's not to say the event isn't tragic, but to be honest, not every traffic fatality caused by a teenager receives national press coverage.

Still, many people believe that taking away a person's ability to drive is the only answer to ensuring that elderly motorists don't put themselves or other people at risk. But the issue isn't as black and white as that. Most policy makers understand that American's rely on their cars as their main mode of transportation. They know that taking cars away from seniors, without offering reasonable alternatives would be devastating to the millions of elderly drivers. Taking away the keys would leave many hard-working people stranded and isolated from society.

What the Numbers Say

When tragedies happen it's easy for people to make assumptions and overreact. As mentioned, many people wanted to strip seniors of their driving privileges because of a terrible accident. The assumption clearly was that seniors are far more dangerous behind the wheel. However, according to the National Highway Safety Transportation Association seniors have lower fatal crash rates per 100,000 licensed drivers when compared to teenaged drivers and slightly higher rates than drivers of other age groups do.

One of the reasons for this is that seniors take shorter trips and drive fewer miles than other drivers. When crash numbers are adjusted to the actual miles traveled, crash rates for seniors increase. Some analysts predict that seniors will be driving more miles in the future and speculate that reported crashes involving senior citizens will increase by 178 percent between now and 2030. It's also estimated that fatal crashes involving seniors will increase by 155 during the same period.

Still, statistics are just that. Numbers don't apply to everyone all the time. It's true that most people lose strength and reaction time as they age. And other conditions, such as arthritis can limit limb function and range of motion. Weakening vision can also play a part in one's ability to operate a motor vehicle.

Because people age in different ways and at different rates, a one-solution-fits all approach doesn't work. Instead, lawmakers urge the ability to drive to be judged on a case by case basis. Some have even suggested that people be required to take a driving exam every few years after reaching a certain age to ensure they're not impaired in any way.

Warning Signs and When to Stop

While it's understandable that people, especially seniors, don't want to give up their independence, especially when it comes to driving, there are signs to beware of that can indicate the onset of diminished capacity. While there are currently no laws that force drivers to give up their keys once they reach a certain age, it's up to the responsible adult to recognize if and when it's time to seek other forms of transportation.

Listed are some common signs that should be cause of concern for senior drivers:

  • Abruptly changing lanes, accelerating or braking
  • Having slow reactions to changes in traffic flow
  • Failure to use turn signals or keeping signal on without turning or changing lanes
  • Drifting into other lanes
  • Driving on the shoulder or on the wrong side of the road
  • Pressing the accelerator instead of the brake
  • Driving much slower than posted speed limits
  • Failure to pay attention to signs, signals or pedestrians
  • Increased fatigue while driving

Now it's true that many young drivers exhibit more than some of these signs every time they get behind the wheel, but in those cases it's mostly due to ignorance rather than inability.

The bottom line, as with most things, is common sense. If friends or family members are expressing concern about your driving abilities or if you're noticing difficulty, it might be time to listen. It's understandable not to want to give up your independence, but it really might mean the difference between life and death.