Study Links Age and Declining Driving Skills Even in Healthy, Sharp Seniors


September 07, 2012

There has been a fair amount of research regarding elevated car collision rates among older drivers. Several studies show that auto collision rates amongst seniors are comparable to those of teenage drivers. A new study provides a different perspective regarding car accident rates among the elderly.

Prior research regarding the causes of auto collision rates among seniors typically has focused on age-related health issues such as dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, glaucoma and other age-related conditions. A new study published by the American Psychological Association suggests that even completely healthy seniors who live independently and drive at least once per week also are more prone to making driving errors that result in auto collisions.

The study was conducted in Australia and involved 266 subjects between the ages of 70 and 88. Those who participated were evaluated with questionnaires and tests that measured various cognitive abilities and functions. The participants were then asked to drive a 12-mile route with a professional driving instructor who had a brake and could override the driver if necessary. An occupational therapist was also in the car and kept a record of various driver errors. Some of the driver errors that were monitored included failing to maintain one’s lane, speeding, tailgating, braking that was sudden and unnecessary and failing to check blind spots.

The researchers findings were that all of these types of errors increase with age. The errors were not limited to drivers with a history of auto accidents, bad driving records or cognitive or physical impairment. The most common errors that drivers made were failing to check their blind spot, along with failing to maintain one’s lane and failure to signal before turning. The driving mistakes made by the senior drivers were serious enough that the driving instructor had to intervene and use the emergency brake almost twenty percent of the time.

While the study participants were healthy and had no obvious signs of cognitive impairment, there was a direct relationship between age and the number of errors made by the otherwise healthy drivers. Drivers between the ages of 85-89 made four times as many driver errors as those between the ages of 70-74. Because the results were not related to obvious age-related differences in cognitive or physical impairment, the researchers suggest that proposals that elder drivers be forced to submit to certain medical exams or cognitive or physical screening may be misguided.

The researchers suggest that what may be required so that older drivers remain safe on the roads longer is additional training on checking blind spots and other driving skills that may decline with age. While the findings are consistent with prior research and studies showing that older drivers are at a greater risk for being involved in an auto collision, it suggests that further research is necessary regarding the causes of the increased risk. It is also important to keep in mind that if you have elderly loved ones they may seem perfectly capable of driving safely when in fact they are prone to make driving errors. Family members should accompany elderly loved ones on a car ride periodically to ensure they can drive safely.

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Category: Auto Accidents

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