- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 18, 2004

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Drivers in their late 50s and early 60s are among the safest on the roads, but motorists who reach retirement age are much more apt to get into an accident, a study by AAA finds.

Drivers older than 85 were nearly four times as likely to die in a crash as middle-age drivers, according to the study released yesterday by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. The study found that as drivers get older, they increasingly lose perception and motor skills.

The study also found that the elderly were more likely to get into crashes while turning left, when drivers often must make quick judgments about whether to stop or go. Drivers older than 65 were 25 percent more likely to get into a crash than middle-age drivers; drivers older than 85 were 50 percent more likely to be involved in a crash.

Researchers have long suspected that older drivers were more likely to die in crashes, but the study quantifies that, AAA spokesman Mantill Williams said.

Bella Dinh-Zarr, AAA’s director of traffic safety, said the study also makes clear that cases such as last year’s accident at a farmer’s market in California, when an elderly man hit and killed 10 persons, are anomalies, because seniors statistically are at greatest risk when involved in accidents. The 87-year-old driver in that case survived.

“The common misconception is that older drivers are a danger to others, but the reality is older drivers are a danger to themselves,” Miss Dinh-Zarr said. “As a country, we should really be thinking of ways to help older drivers.”

AAA did not recommend new laws to govern elderly drivers. Twenty-two states already have such laws. Florida requires drivers age 80 or older to have their vision thoroughly checked when they renew their licenses, while New Hampshire and Illinois require road tests for those 75 and older.

AAA says seniors should consider taking specially designed driving courses; 35 states provide insurance discounts for drivers who take such courses. Older drivers also should assess their driving skills regularly with their doctors, AAA said.

Miss Dinh-Zarr said vehicles can be modified to help older drivers. Larger rear and side mirrors, larger and brighter dashboard displays, and seat belts that are easier to lock would help, she said.

Miss Dinh-Zarr said seniors wear their seat belts more often than any other age group but often complain the belts are difficult to lock.

She also said better lighting and signs at intersections that protected left-turn lanes would help decrease confusion among older drivers.

The study, by the Texas Transportation Institute, analyzed police records from 3.9 million crashes between 1975 and 1999. Those crashes caused 90,036 fatalities. During that time, the number of licensed drivers 75 and older in Texas increased faster than any other age group; they now make up more than 5 percent of Texas drivers.

The numbers in Texas are mirrored nationally. The number of people older than 65 is expected to double over the next 30 years; by 2030, one in five Americans will be 65 or older, AAA said.

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