Road Rules: Helping the Elderly Drive Safely ; A New Study Outlines Risks, and Highlights Some Solutions, for Growing Population of Older Drivers

Article excerpt

In Los Angeles, 87-year-old Russell Weller was arraigned last month for the tragic deaths of 10 people in July, when his car sped out of control through a crowdedfarmers' market. In Phoenix, 68- year-old Bishop Thomas O'Brien was convicted Tuesday of killing a jaywalker whom his defense attorney said he didn't see, even after part of his windshield was smashed. And one of the most extensive studies of senior drivers to date, released Wednesday, concludes that older drivers pose significant dangers to themselves and others, due to everything from slower perception to the effects of medication.

Together, they're signs of a road-safety challenge that is rising as the baby-boom generation begins to reach retirement age and as Americans live longer in general. Renewed attention to the risks of that graying driving population is likely to spur changes, from more license testing and education in new technologies to the redesigning of roads, signs, and lighting.

"The group over 65 is the largest-growing cohort in America, and we have to come to grips with what that means for transportation," says Peter Kissinger, president of the American Automobile Association (AAA) Foundation for Traffic Safety, which sponsored the study.

The survey of 4 million injury crashes over 25 years in Texas is one of the largest yet, and it reveals challenges from slower response time in braking to diminished visual range to physical frailty. The probability of death or injury in crashes increases with the driver's age, as does the likelihood of a left-turn crash or lapses in perception that could contribute to a crash, according to the study.

Those discoveries aren't new, but they lay groundwork that could lead to better public and family policies - or even change the way cars are manufactured.

"This is an important study in pointing up how many things have changed for older drivers in the past two decades, but still there is a yawning gap in what needs to be don," says Maureen Mohyde, director of the corporate gerontology group for The Hartford Financial Services, which offers car insurance to members of AARP.

The report showed that the average person requires ten times the amount of light to see an object at age 60 as at age 16. It also found that seniors are more likely to be involved in left-turn crashes: An 85-year-old, for example, is 50 percent more likely to be involved in such a crash than someone between 55 and 64.

Such conclusions point to possible policy changes, such as enhanced lighting for freeways, wider turn lanes, and longer left- turn traffic signals. And those are increasingly urgent, analysts say: If trends continue, both the number of drivers over 65 and the number of highway deaths - now 5,500 annually - will double by 2030, according to Kissinger. …