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Helping the Elderly Driver To Stay Alive

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reports that people 65 years and older represented 13 percent of the U.S. population in 1997, and accounted for 18 percent of the vehicle fatalities. Experts tell us that by the year 2000, elderly people are expected to represent 20 percent of the population.

What DIA finds alarming is from 1987 to 1997, there was a 12 percent increase in fatalities involving drivers over 75 years of age. In just one year alone, from 1996 to 1997, there was a 10 percent increase in fatalities for this same age group!

In this article DIA will review options and suggestions for improving many situations with elderly drivers -- looking at some of the types of accidents elderly drivers are having, the root causes of these accidents, and how to help elderly drivers eliminate many possible accident situations. Also provided are tips on spotting these elderly drivers and minimizing your own accident possibility situation.

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First, on a personal level, are there any elderly drivers in your family who are regularly or occasionally driving on the nation's highways? Second, does the family have a plan to ensure the elderly loved one is safe on the road? Third, are your driving habits good enough to prepare for any possible accident situations with an elderly driver? DIA provides information to help families make the decision to take an elderly driver off the road when the time comes.

Identify and Take Responsibility

Let us evaluate the situation where there is an elderly driver who probably should be off the road. A small fender-bender may be a tipoff, as DIA feels, in all cases, that small accidents only lead to more serious ones. With an elderly driver in the family, you may have to be responsible for deciding to take the elderly driver off the road. This, indeed, will be a very hard decision and DIA suggests everyone in the family be involved and make it a family decision (husband, wife, sons, daughters, brothers, sister, nephews, nieces, and grandchildren).

It is no secret that this is a great loss of independence and privilege for the elderly family member, which may have devastating emotional affects during this time.

How do you know if the time has come to keep the elderly family member off the road? DIA suggests exhausting all other options before pulling the elderly driver off the road. The following steps and options are guidelines for making that decision.

  1. Contact the American Association for Retired Persons (AARP) for their Elderly Driver Safety programs and enroll the elderly driver in one of these courses. The prices are usually very reasonable -- around $25-30 dollars. Contact your local AARP office for details.

  2. Conduct several test rides with the elderly driver. This is very important. During the ride-along the observer should focus on the driver's speed control (is it too fast? or too slow?} Observe visual habits (are they scanning properly, or are they erratic in their visual techniques}? What to watch for here is failure to pick out all vehicles encountered. When at intersections, is the driver judging the speed of the cross traffic properly? An elderly driver may have a tendency to pull out from an intersection at a slower than normal speed. Other areas to observe during these test rides are lane change techniques. When making a lane change is the driver planning a lane change by checking mirrors? On every lane change?

  3. Establish all the reasons the elderly loved one has to operate a car. The goal here is to minimize or eliminate altogether the need to drive. There are companies who specialize in serving the elderly by picking up and delivering groceries, going to the cleaners, delivering medications, and even driving them to the beauty shop.

  4. Take the elderly driver for a visual exam. There are exams which will detect any loss of peripheral vision. This is extremely critical since loss of peripheral vision greatly increases the chances of a loved one being involved in an accident. Ask their optometrist for a comprehensive evaluation and suggestions. The results of these exams may help in making a decision to discourage a loved one from driving.

  5. Analyze the areas the elderly driver regularly travels. This is another technique to minimize the elderly driver's necessity to be on the road. Select safer driving routes. If there are alternate routes to the grocery store, encourage the elderly driver to take the route with the least traffic rather than a high volume, high speed highway. DIA suggests that someone ride with the elderly driver on every route they will be driving -- to the cleaners, the grocery store, the doctor, the pharmacy and any community service or club visits -- to get a feel for the driver's capabilities on the road.

  6. Look into the possibility of moving the loved one to an assisted-living situation where there is little or no need to drive. Some of these retirement centers provide transportation to common destinations. This type of retirement center usually has loved ones driving golf carts to the local cleaners.

Four common types of accidents involving elderly drivers are:

  • intersection accidents,
  • accidents involving loss of control,
  • rear-end collisions, and
  • colliding with objects.

These accidents all have similar root-causes:

  • improper visual habits,
  • being easily distracted,
  • inattention,
  • health problems while driving, and
  • failure to observe traffic signs.

Elderly drivers spend less time on the road than the average driver, therefore driving skills become rusty. One of the most frequent causes of accidents with the elderly is failure to observe all traffic signs properly such as a "One-Way Traffic" or "No Passing Zone." Imagine driving on a one-way street, cresting over a hill, then seeing a car coming the wrong direction heading towards you!

In a Central Texas city in 1998, there were 11 fatal accidents caused by drivers going the wrong way! The majority of these drivers were over sixty-five years of age. With the large "Baby Boomer" generation getting older, this type of accident may, unfortunately, become more common. Regarding intersection accidents, the main causes are failure to correctly judge the speed of cross traffic, and pulling out without seeing a car coming due to loss of peripheral vision. Another cause of intersection accidents is failure to notice the traffic lights. The lady who ran the red light and smashed into another vehicle said, "I never saw the light, I was looking at the Christmas lights." Lost-control type accidents are becoming more frequent with elderly drivers from causes such as pressing on the wrong pedal (hitting the gas instead of the brake), health problems (heart-attacks, strokes), and being easily distracted in the vehicle.

Rear-end collisions and striking a fixed object-type accidents are the result of inattention, being distracted, health problems, and operator failure.

There are many reports of accidents where an elderly driver lost control of the vehicle and drove into a building injuring or killing innocent people. There was one such situation a few years ago where an elderly driver lost control of a car at O'Hare Airport. The out-of-control vehicle struck several children -- resulting in one fatality and severe injuries to others. The cause in this accident was determined to be the elderly driver pressing on the gas instead of the brake. Remember, when conducting a test ride with an elderly driver, look at where the foot is placed on the brake. Ensure that it is firmly in the center part of the brake pedal and not on the right edge of the brake closest to the gas pedal. It is very important that this poor habit be corrected immediately.

Information from the National Safety Council's "Accident Facts" informs us that 7,500 drivers, sixty-five years and older, where killed in vehicle accidents in 1997. The accident involvement rate per million miles driven for elderly drivers was 11.5 and is the highest of all other age groups.