In 2005, Congress provided a new authorization to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy For Users (SAFETEA-LU), Public Law 109-59. In Section 2017 of SAFETEA-LU, Congress authorized the establishment by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) of “a comprehensive research and demonstration program to improve traffic safety pertaining to older drivers.” Through this legislation, NHTSA is authorized to spend $1,700,000 per year in Fiscal Years 2006 through 2009 to support older driver safety. In SAFETEA-LU, Congress directed NHTSA to develop a plan to:

  1. provide information and guidelines to people who can influence older drivers.
  2. improve the scientific basis of licensing decisions.
  3. conduct field tests to assess the safety benefits and mobility impacts of programs.
  4. assess the value and improve the safety potential of driver retraining courses.
  5. conduct other activities to accomplish the objectives of this section.

NHTSA has had an older driver research program since 1989. In 2003, DOT released the report Safe Mobility for a Maturing Society: Challenges and Opportunities. In this report, attention was given to the state of the knowledge in older road user safety (drivers, occupants, and pedestrians) and to critical gaps in knowledge that are preventing advances in older driver safety within the United States. A 2000 report from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), Ageing and Transport - Mobility Needs and Safety Issues, defined the issues and gaps on an international level. NHTSA was heavily involved in the development of both of these critically important documents. Both serve to guide NHTSA’s current work in older driver safety. In December 2005, delegates to the White House Conference on Aging (WHCOA) voted to include two transportation-specific resolutions in their recommendations concerning Executive Branch priorities in the coming decade. In developing this plan, NHTSA considered and incorporated the resolutions, which encourage support for transportation options and for the safety of older drivers.

Based on national crash data and widely accepted research in the field, NHTSA’s programs acknowledge that only a fraction of older drivers are at increased risk of involvement in vehicle crashes, and that there are people who can identify and influence the behavior of those at-risk drivers. These people include medical providers, social services providers, law enforcement officers, licensing personnel, and older drivers and their families. By focusing on these key people, NHTSA allocates its limited resources to reach the broadest possible set of audiences with materials and information that are data-driven, research-based, appropriate, and focused on what they can do to improve the safety of older drivers.

In 2005, NHTSA convened an expert panel with members from the medical community, aging services, law enforcement, licensing, industry, and academia to identify critical information and program gaps in the older driver field. Focus was on behavioral activities rather than on vehicle-based programs. Several critical themes arose from the expert panel discussion:

  • Older driver diversity: The physiological, psychological, and cultural differences among older drivers present challenges in designing and implementing programs.

  • Driver assessment and tools: There is insufficient evidence on the validity and reliability of any driving assessment or screening tool.

  • Driving transitions and cessation: We should change the tone regarding driving cessation from “giving up the keys” to “making a safe transition” from driver to passenger.

  • Organizational and professional roles, responsibilities, and partnerships: Law enforcement, medical providers, social services providers, and licensing authorities must all play a role in keeping older drivers safe.

This report contains a description of NHTSA’s plans to address the following topics:

  • Screening and Assessment – Relating to medical providers, families, licensing agencies, law enforcement, and older drivers in all efforts to improve the value of screening and assessment of driving abilities.

  • Licensing – Including efforts to improve the validity and value of licensing actions relating to medically at-risk drivers and communications between licensing and others regarding at-risk drivers.

  • Medical Providers – Focusing on medical providers and older driver issues outside the scope of screening and assessment, such as medication reviews and revisions of medically-oriented materials.

  • Public Education and Program Promotion – Identifying activities to promote and evaluate education programs for older drivers and their families, including driver retraining courses. This area also includes law enforcement.

  • Other Activities – Researching topics that are important to explore, but do not otherwise fit into the above categories.