According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), more than 4,000 Americans over the age of 70 died in car crashes in 2008. While the accident rate is about the same as for teens, the consequences for seniors — whose bodies are generally more vulnerable — is more severe. The good news is that studies have shown seniors are involved in fewer serious crashes today than experts had predicted a decade ago. In large part that’s to do with a collective desire to educate ourselves about the issues surrounding safe senior driving.
“The most important thing older drivers can do to protect themselves, and others, is to be familiar with common dangers,” says Barbara Kate Repa, senior editor at Caring.com. “Awareness adds years to your driving life.” With the help of driving experts, we’ve assembled a list of the top ten situations that can halt older drivers in their tracks.
Intersections. 40 percent of fatal collisions for people 70 and older happen at intersections. “Intersections require a number of decisions, from stopping to turning to ceding the right of way,” says Repa. “Most problems come from going too slowly or hesitating. Decision making is truncated as you get older, and an intersection, especially a busy one, can be overwhelming.”
Pedestrians. Pedestrians — especially relevant for older drivers in urban settings — are notably unpredictable. Older drivers unable to react quickly to unexpected events might not see or respond to an approaching pedestrian, runner or bicyclist until it’s too late.
Left turns. Thousands of major intersections across the country use a green arrow for left turns, but unprotected left turns can be extremely hazardous. “Left turns are complicated for any driver, with multiple decisions to make,” says Peter Kissinger, President and CEO of the American Automobile Foundation for Traffic Safety. “Many defensive driving courses actually advise older drivers to completely avoid left turns and instead make a right and then a legal U-turn.”
Stop signs. According to a recent study conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, failing to yield to other vehicles at stop signs contributes to more than 50 percent of crashes. Newly erected stop signs can often confuse older drivers who’ve been traveling the same roads for years.
Car incompatibility. Often, seniors are driving vehicles that weren’t specifically purchased to suit their needs — too big, too small, too many blind spots, hard to read instrument panels. AAA’s car-fit.org is designed to help seniors determine how well they “fit” with their cars and what to do if not, while automobile review site Edmunds.com offers advice on the best cars for older drivers (desirable features might include voice control, padded steering, adaptive cruise control and self-parking.)
Rear-ending. Older drivers have a higher tendency to run into cars in front of them. “As we get older, our vision worsens,” says Repa. “Our reflexes tend to slow down. Judgment isn’t as quick, so snap decisions can be tricky.” Reacting to a sudden stop can become a considerable challenge.
Modern technology. New cars often come equipped with technologically advanced controls. If you’re buying a new car, be sure to ask the dealer for an operating primer before you leave the lot. If you’re renting, take the time to get acquainted with the unfamiliar car’s most important controls — lights, mirrors, seat position, windows and directionals. And driving while holding your cell phone — or texting — is now illegal in most states.
Night driving. “As we age, most of us need substantially more light to see,” says Kissinger. “The risks associated with driving at night are higher for everyone, but older people have to worry about cataracts that exist or may be developing, the distraction of headlight glare and the fact that darkness makes decision-making more complicated.”
Medications. In addition to the physical and cognitive-related effects of aging (see “How Age Affects Driving” article), many common medications can cause drowsiness, dizziness and impaired reaction time. “A lot of medications come with considerable side effects or interact with food or each other,” says Kissinger, citing an AAAF study that revealed a significant amount of under-awareness among older drivers who were taking prescription drugs.
Changing laws. Driving regulations, which are ever-changing, vary from state to state. Some states, like Illinois and New Hampshire, require road tests for older drivers to renew their licenses. If you relocate, it’s important to familiarize yourself with the laws in your new area either through your local DMV or the AARP, which offers senior driving refresher courses across the country and online. Visit www.aarp.org/findacourse.