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Those are among many tough questions we face as our driving population ages, and they're among the concerns currently being covered in a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) forum on older drivers.
The NTSB isn't necessarily looking at taking licenses away or making them more limited; that would be the states' domain, largely. But it is looking at establishing uniform testing requirements, as well as studying what changes could be made in the design of cars and roads.
It's the first time in the NTSB's 40-year history that it's looked specifically at older drivers.
Rising tide or a tsunami?
National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) chairman Deborah Hersman called the issue a "rising tide," according to Bloomberg, due to an aging population and rising life expectancy, plus drivers holding onto their licenses longer. Today there are 32 million licensed drivers age 65 and older. By 2025, more than one out of every five drivers will be over age 65. That's up markedly from today, when about 15 percent are over 65. By 2030, according to the National Institute on Aging, 25 percent of drivers will be older than 65. And by that year, the IIHS has predicted—when there will be 57 million elderly drivers on the road, 25 percent of all fatal traffic crashes will involve those 65 and older.
Another trend that's particularly concerning is that people are holding on to their licenses longer. From 1997 to this past year, the proportion of those 70 and older who still hold a license has gone from 73 to 79 percent. But older drivers are getting safer.
Dementia and driving
In addition to chronic issues that might prevent older drivers from responding as quickly; cognitive impairments and dementia might even keep older drivers from understanding risk—or even perceiving where they are. And instances such as these appear to be on an upswing over the past decade. Several—like the 2003 Santa Monica outdoor market accident, in which the driver killed ten and injured many more—have shown that those who were driving had such a diminished capacity that they shouldn't have still been licensed.
Furthermore, recent issues like unintended acceleration—investigated this past year in Toyota vehicles—have been experienced much more frequently among older drivers. Of 19 fatal accidents under investigation for unintended acceleration, 10 were older than 60 and five were older than 80, and according to NHTSA, the average age over all the Toyota crashes was 61.
Only minor changes so far
With the Baby Boomer generation aging, it's only going to get worse until we set some ground rules. Only New Hampshire and Illinois require an additional road test after 75, but at least 25 states have set some additional rules or test methods for older drivers.
However, as the senior-advocacy group AARP argues, older drivers do tend to respect that diminished capacity and self-limit their time behind the wheel to daylight hours and short trips in familiar places. They also tend to be more cautious, wear their seatbelts more often, and are less likely to drink and drive.
Those age 70 and older are more likely to be the victims, too; they're about three times as likely overall as those age 35-54 to be fatally injured in a crash, and some of that is due to physical fragility. Ford Motor Co. [NYSE: F], at this forum, again presented its inflatable seat belt system; the automaker says that it might better shield injury-prone older occupants in a crash. The system is included in the all-new 2011 Ford Explorer.