Death Rate Among Older Drivers Increases

Oct. 6, 2000 -- Even as traffic fatality rates are dropping in the United States overall, more and more older people are dying in car wrecks, and the death rate for them is likely to climb further unless steps are taken to make roads safer, a new report says.

The Road Information Program, a research group known as TRIP that analyzed statistics collected by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, says that the number of drivers 70 years old and older involved in fatal accidents increased 39 percent from 1989 to 1999.

Over the same period, the number of accident fatalities across all age groups, dropped 9 percent, according to the study released Thursday.

“As our nation’s population continues to age in the years ahead, it will become increasingly important that we make the kind of roadway safety improvements that can help reduce accidents and save the lives of older drivers,” said William M. Wilkins, executive director of TRIP.

“Overall, there are more elderly drivers out there, and states should do their part in trying to reduce the number of fatalities to make roads safer,” said Paul Haaland, a spokesman for TRIP. “Better signs, wider lanes, and making a transportation network safe for everybody, not just for older people is necessary. That could reduce fatalities for everybody.”

Florida, California Top List

The state with the highest number of fatalities of older drivers was Florida, followed by California, Texas, Pennsylvania, Michigan, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Missouri, Georgia and Illinois.

Although Florida topped the TRIP list in this study, the state is considered to be the leader in making roadways more accessible for elderly drivers. Since 1991, the Florida Department of Transportation has done everything from adding more reflective materials to road signs and roadway markings, to widening highway lanes, to posting oversized street signs and notifying drivers earlier when an intersection is approaching.

Eighteen percent of the licensed drivers in Florida are 65 and older, said Dave Anderson, deputy state traffic engineer for the Florida DOT. This number is expected to grow to 25 percent over the next decade.

“We’ve increased the size of all signs to be bigger than the minimum standard. They are 4-by-4-feet instead of 3-by-3,” said Anderson. “A bigger sign lets you go to a larger letter size for the message on the sign. The signs are designed for drivers with 20-70 vision.”

The state is also moving left-turn lanes in intersections further to the left so drivers waiting to make a turn, possibly across several lanes, can see oncoming vehicles faster, Anderson said.

“It’s just a simple thing, and the payoff is pretty significant in visibility,” he said. “We need to design the whole system for an older driver. Traditionally, roads were designed for a 25-year-old, but they should be for a 65-year-old.”

Just a Numbers Game?

Other states are pursuing steps similar to those taken by Florida and recommended in the study, but federal officials said making the highways more accessible to the elderly might actually cost more lives.

“It’s all a numbers game,” said one NHTSA researcher who, citing controversy over the Firestone tire recall, declined to be identifed. “When [older drivers] get into a crash, it’s more likely they will die.”

He said the study declined to mention who causes the accidents, and most often, it is not the elderly driver According to NHTSA statistics, men under 20 caused approximately 19 million crashes; people 65 years old and older caused roughly a quarter as many.

“The scary thing is, most of the things we can do to make driving easier for older people will cause fatalities,” he said. “If we make the roads easier for older people to use, it will encourage older people to drive more. And the more people drive, the more likely they will be involved in a crash, and possibly a fatal crash.”

The ultimate solution is to help elderly drivers reduce the amount of time they spend on the road by bringing social functions and facilities such as pharmacies closer to their homes, he said, suggesting that more people take into consideration transportation planning when planning a retirement lifestyle.

“Older people want to drive or ride in a car, because the thing they cherish most is independence,” he said. “I’ve heard a clinician say once that it was harder to tell a client that they can’t drive anymore than tell them they had terminal cancer.”