Aging Drivers Focus of Conference

The older driver safety conference held at UC Berkeley on June 12 presented six hours of excellent discussion and research. Traffic specialists, clinicians and researchers covered the unique challenges faced by aging drivers and possible solutions. Here’s a summary of what was discussed.

Drivers between 50 and 90 have fewer accidents than younger folks, and these accidents rarely kill others. However, drivers between 50 and 90 suffer 200 percent more fatalities. In fact, the risk of serious injury or dying rises dramatically with age. Furthermore, older drivers are more likely to be at fault.

The cause of most accidents is not speeding. The leading culprit is a dwindling capacity to navigate intersections, negotiate right of way, change lanes and make lefthand turns.

Aging-driver difficulties are organized into three general areas: physical and mental changes, vehicles and our roadways.

Our bodies: Changing vision is the leading physical cause of accidents. As we age our ability to focus declines and our field of vision shrinks. Common difficulties include lowered tolerance of glare from the sun or nighttime headlights, difficulty perceiving movement and estimating speed and poor hand-eye coordination.

Arthritis and vision problems combine to render it difficult to turn the head far enough in order to adequately scan traffic. The UC Berkeley School of Optometry suggests testing eyesight every six months, just as for dental checkups. Also, changes in mental skills include delayed reaction times and slower thought processing due to prescription drugs, alcohol or the normal course of aging, even when intelligence remains intact. Dementia, which destroys memory, judgment and planning skills, increases dramatically after 85.

Our vehicles: To decrease injuries during accidents, improved vehicle design would protect the weaker bones and less resilient muscles of the elderly. Additional proposed changes include wider mirrors, night-vision windshields, and computerized safety and collision warning systems. Seniors’ fixed incomes and the subsequent lack of funds for car repairs or new tires is also an issue that needs to be addressed.

Unfortunately, many seniors dislike paratransit or taxi services that substitute for private cars. I have heard complaints about “scary” drivers or scheduled rides that don’t show up. Additional and more reliable services are recommended.

Our roadways: Improvements in our infrastructure would help all ages. Topics under consideration for older drivers: improved lighting, better pavement markings and more lefthand turn lanes at intersections; increased width of travel lanes; and larger, more visible, traffic signals.

Finally DMV driver renewal criteria must improve. Age-related testing is discriminatory, and tests now in use do not cover the above difficulties. The DMV is experimenting with a multilevel, “Three-Tier Driver Assessment System.” The system is expected to improve the assessment of license renewal applicants, as well as drivers referred for re-examination.

For questions and the report “Traffic Safety Among Older Adults,” contact (619) 594-3691 or [email protected].