For an elderly couple I know who live in rural Florida, driving represents far more than everyday independence and freedom. It means survival. With no one else to get their food and medicine, and no public transportation, he drives while she tells him where to go. Both are approaching 80, the wife paralyzed from a stroke, the husband legally blind.
Thishealth-vs.-mobility predicament - familiar to older people nationwide - reflects the complexity and controversy surrounding elder drivers in America. More seniors are behind the wheel than ever - 19 million over age 70, according to the US Department of Transportation.Within two decades, this number is expected to climb to 30 million, as people live longer and remain active in their later years.
Since an 86-year-old motorist plowed into a farmers' market in Santa Monica, Calif., in July - killing 10 and injuring dozens - some commentators have suggested older drivers are an irresponsible menace with no business on public roadways. Given the growth in the senior population, the national debate on how - or whether - to regulate driving privileges for the elderly is really only just beginning.
Most older motorists I met during eight years of working in hospitals were safe drivers who restricted their own travels, such as driving only in the daytime. Indeed, when it comes to deadly road behavior - speeding, driving while intoxicated, running red lights, using cellphones, road rage - research by the government, the AAA, and the insurance industry shows the majority of perpetrators are younger drivers.
That said, advanced age definitely is a risk factor in driving safety. Problems with vision, hearing, reaction time, medication use, cognitive impairment, and physical ailments can spell roadway disaster. I also have known elderly drivers who are in deep denial about their diminished driving capacity. While people over 70 comprise about 10 percent of licensed drivers, federal transportation data show they are involved in 13 percent of all fatal traffic accidents.On a per-mile-driven basis, they have higher accident rates than all but the youngest drivers.
Furthermore, it is often elder drivers themselves who don't survive crashes. Seniors who are physically vulnerable are far more likely than younger drivers to die of a comparable injury, according to the American Medical Association. By age 85, their auto fatality rate is nine times that of drivers aged 25 to 69.
Something needs to be done, most people agree. …