turning the corner...a review of law enforcement programs involving older driver safety


For most of our history, a graph depicting the U.S. population resembled a pyramid. The oldest population formed the pinnacle and the youngest population provided its broad base. The baby boomers, however, are changing the shape of the graph; under their influence it no longer has a pyramid shape. Between 1946 and 1964 doctors delivered 76 million American babies. population by age, united states, 2000 and 2030 - click for long descriptionDubbed the “baby boomers” by demographers, they have comprised the largest age group in our society for their entire lives. Although “boomers” are middle-aged today, in 2011 the first of them will arrive at “old age” when they turn 65. By 2029, when the last of them have celebrated their 65th birthday, there will be more than 70 million senior citizens living in the United States1.

While the boomers’ impact on our senior population is a key factor, it doesn’t stand alone as the reason the U.S. population is getting older. Advances in health care and improvements in lifestyle during the last 50 years have translated into a longer lifespan, making the oldest citizens, those over 85, the fastest-growing segment of our population. At the beginning of this century, in 2000, there were 34 times more people over 85 than at the beginning of the last century in 19002. This figure, provided by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Resources, paints a vivid portrayal of the shift in our nation’s median age.

What effect does this demographic trend have on traffic regulation and enforcement? First, let’s look at some characteristics of the aging driver.

The Car is America's Choice for Personal Transportation

Everyone knows that Americans have a fabled love affair with their cars—so much so that cars now outnumber drivers for the first time in history.

The numbers of both registered cars and licensed drivers have grown for decades. Not only are there more vehicles on our roads than in any other time in our history, but we also drive more miles. Highways and road systems are clogged with business commuters, errand-running parents, and pleasure drivers. While some of our grandmothers might never have learned to drive, driving is seen as a necessity in today’s world. In fact, more women are driving than ever before.

This facet of the bigger issue is illustrative of the complexities of the aging driver issue. Researchers at NHTSA estimate that approximately 20 percent of women age 65 or older don’t drive, either because they never learned or because they have stopped driving for some reason. (Source: Literature Review of the Status of Research on the Transportation and Mobility Needs of Older Women, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.) That percentage is declining rapidly while survivorship and immigration serve to increase the number of women drivers. Meanwhile, older women outnumber older men in our population, a trend that will continue into the future alongside the fact that more women than men live alone in old age. Living unaccompanied leaves these women without someone else to rely on for driving or with whom to share the burden. This domestic profile increases women’s reliance on the car for their routine transportation needs. In short, there will be more senior women driving cars in the future.

Driving is a Factor in Personal Independence

Learning to drive represents a specific rite-of-passage, an inarguable freedom for each successive legion of teenagers who receive driving licenses. The ability to drive connects people to work, churches, social groups, doctors, shopping, friends, etc. Americans drive an estimated 2.8 trillion miles a year3 , using the car almost exclusively to run errands and conduct the business of their daily lives.

Baby boomers, because they have always used cars as their primary mode of transportation, will continue to rely on their personal autos once they achieve senior citizen status. Tomorrow’s seniors will have driven their entire adult lives and will be accustomed to the high level of mobility the automobile provides. That same sense of freedom and independence that teens acquire with their first license, seniors carry with them to old age. The ability to travel from place to place is an important characteristic of personal autonomy and good quality-of-life. Most seniors plan to continue driving in their later years in order to retain autonomy and quality of life.

Commuting to work and back home has always been a major portion of our daily mileage. The census indicates that nearly 88 percent of Americans travel to work by car, most without passengers. That percentage will not decline in coming decades even as people retire. That’s because it is a fallacy that age 65 means retirement, according to baby boomers. Middle-aged Americans report that either out of desire or necessity, many will work at least part-time after they reach 65. Eight of 10 said that they expect to continue working after traditional retirement age4. Traditional retirement age has increased, too. The Social Security Administration is gradually increasing the normal retirement age to 67, another change that will affect most baby boomers—and their commuting habits.

There Are Few Alternatives to Driving

Most communities offer few alternatives to driving. Public transportation systems are chiefly built on hubs that service inner cities, with only sporadic service in suburban neighborhoods. Rural services are limited. This is problematic, because some estimates suggest that 80 percent of the elderly live in rural or suburban environments, leaving only about 20 percent with access to reliable, convenient public transportation. It is estimated that in the near future between 60 and 86 percent of the elderly population plan to age “in place,” away from urban areas. When reviewed closely, these statistics support the theory that baby boomers are not going to be moving to the city in order to use public transportation systems as their driving ability declines.

To the contrary, because the majority live outside the city, they will likely continue to do so. Even today, consumers have to travel to commercial centers to obtain goods and services once readily available closer to home. “Big box” stores have all but eliminated mom-and-pop markets from residential neighborhoods. Lacking dependable public transportation, most elderly residents will continue to rely heavily on their automobiles and will need to commute to obtain goods and services. Many will have to travel on rural roads to get to retail outlets. This will be of special concern to sheriffs—rural roads have more than twice the fatality rate as urban roads5.

National Policies Favor Mobility

Policy makers understand America’s reliance on the car as the principal transportation choice. They recognize that taking cars away from senior citizens, without offering attractive alternatives, is not the answer: This would have a devastating effect on seniors, leaving them virtually stranded and isolated from society. The ability to drive or have viable transportation alternatives is vital to the maintenance of social and emotional well-being. Losing the ability to drive correlates to a loss of freedom and independence so severe that it can cause deep depression and other emotional distress6. Therefore, as policy discussions and development have taken place in the past decade, emphasis has been on keeping senior drivers behind the wheel for as long as they can be safe, rather than taking away their car keys.

This may seem like a departure from popular wisdom since the media has recently focused public attention on crashes involving elderly drivers. Unfortunately, much of that attention is devoted to tragedies wherein an elderly person crashes their car into a market or a sidewalk full of pedestrians. Due to the sensational nature of some media coverage, some of the public may be left with the impression that elderly drivers per se are dangerous. Support for this thesis hasn’t been substantiated, despite TV, magazine, and newspaper stories.

Seniors have lower fatal crash rates per 100,000 licensed drivers when compared with teenage drivers and slightly higher rates than drivers of other age groups. One reason is that seniors drive fewer miles and take shorter trips than other drivers. Even this statistic, alone, can be misleading. When their crashes are adjusted to reflect the number of miles traveled, seniors’ crash rates go up with their increased exposure. crash involvement by age group - click for long descriptionThis is important to law enforcement officials because the empirical data are based on the historical likeliness that seniors were driving fewer miles as they aged. Analysts predict that more senior drivers will drive more miles in the future. The resulting projections are daunting: the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety predicts that the number of senior citizens involved in reported car crashes will increase by 178 percent between 1999 and 2030. During the same period, seniors’ involvement in fatal crashes is projected to increase by 155 percent.

From a traffic management viewpoint, this raises various issues for law enforcement practitioners. Encounters with elderly drivers will occur more often because the elderly will comprise such a large portion of our population (one in five will be over 65 in 20307).

When seniors make up a larger proportion of road users, other implications for law enforcement emerge. For instance, more older drivers mean more age-related hazards being experienced on the roads. Even though we enjoy healthier lifestyles and live longer, aging still causes declines in motor skills, and in perceptual and cognitive abilities in the majority of adults. Since drivers rely heavily on these functions, any degradation can manifest itself in poorer driving performance.

For instance, most people lose flexibility and face declining strength with age. These losses are most pronounced in people who have arthritis or a similar condition, but can affect anyone. The resulting pain, weakness, and stiffness can limit both function and range of motion. Some drivers may feel pain or have difficulty turning to look over their shoulders while they back or change lanes, and many of those will avoid turning to mitigate their discomfort. Others may find it difficult to manipulate the controls in their cars.

Generally, people slow down with age. They may experience slower reflexes, delayed reaction times, and have more difficulty concentrating. Some have trouble processing complex mental tasks, affecting the quick decisions and responses drivers frequently must make.

Aging adults commonly complain about weakened vision. Changes in eyesight can make it difficult for seniors to focus on moving objects, see well at night or under low light conditions, adjust to glare, or rely on peripheral vision. Clearly, drivers rely on sight more than any other sense to operate a car.

Many other changes can accompany the aging process, including:

  • Different forms of dementia such as that caused by Alzheimer’s disease

  • Age-related illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes, stroke, etc., and

  • Effects induced by the consumption of medicines.

However, the highway transportation industry is anticipating the increased numbers of older drivers. Recognizing that an older driver may have difficulty looking to the rear, automobile manufacturers are investigating new technologies that will alert a driver to the presence of hazards behind the vehicle. In addition, automakers are redesigning lighting and instruments to make them easier to see. They also are creating handles and knobs that arthritic hands can grip easily. Highway departments around the country are making the lettering on signs larger and easier to read. Engineers are building roads and interchanges that are easier for seniors to navigate.

Law Enforcement's Role in Addressing The Elderly Driver Quandary

Just as other industries are preparing for more elderly citizens, law enforcement must analyze its role and develop sound strategies for the future. For example, it is already clear that senior drivers are over-represented in intersection crashes. Crashes at intersections present special concerns for law enforcement. They take significant manpower to secure, investigate, and clean up because they involve multiple roadways. Disrupted traffic flow often aggravates these challenges.

Crashes involving elderly drivers, passengers, and pedestrians require more on-scene processing time because seniors are more likely to be injured in these crashes. In its aged state, the human body is frailer than when it is young. About one-third of older driver fatalities occur at intersections. The fraction increases to about one half when the driver’s age exceeds 808. All other factors being the same, older drivers and passengers are more likely to suffer more injuries than younger people who are involved in the same type of crash. This means that there will be an increased use of rescue apparatus at more crash scenes complicating law enforcement’s efforts to restore efficient traffic flow and accomplish other on-scene tasks.

The same frailty that exposes seniors to higher injury rates in crashes exacerbates their fatality rates. Early in 2004, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety released study data that shows in crashes of similar severity, people over 65 are 1.78 times more likely to die in that crash than people age 55 to 64; that people over 75 are 2.59 times more likely to die; and that those over 85 are 3.72 times more likely to die. Since more elderly people in each of the three age groups will be traveling in an automobile as drivers or passengers, they will be involved more frequently in serious crashes. Fatal crashes consume more resources including investigative time than collisions without aggravating factors, and law enforcement managers need to plan for this increased workload.

Drivers are not dangerous because they are getting older. In fact, older drivers are more likely to obey speed limits, wear safety belts, less likely to drive while under the influence of alcohol, and report taking fewer risks than other age groups. And despite the wide media coverage of older driver tragedies, seniors are still less hazardous to the public than teenage drivers. Even as older drivers are at increased risk for crash involvement, they are not more likely to cause collisions that are fatal to other people on the road. Their obedience to many “rules of the road” supports the contention that when elderly drivers do crash they tend to injure themselves rather than someone else.

Also, license renewals drop dramatically for drivers in their 80s even as this age group expands—evidence that many senior citizens recognize their diminished abilities. Before deciding to stop driving all together, though, many senior drivers compensate for diminished driving skills. They may choose familiar or less challenging routes to make their driving more comfortable and avoid freeway driving, rush hours and congestion, driving at night, and other aspects of driving, such as making left turns, that could cause anxiety or injury.

Based on the knowledge that drivers may self regulate, curricula have emerged that are aimed at helping senior citizens understand the physical changes they are undergoing, how these changes affect driving, and how to adjust their driving behaviors to compensate for some of these changes. One role that law enforcement can fill is that of facilitator. Sheriffs’ offices and other law enforcement agencies can join with community agencies to provide these lesson plans to senior communities.

Still, not all drivers are willing to stop driving when appropriate, and some drivers may need to be persuaded to give up driving. Others may cease driving prematurely. In these instances, law enforcement agencies can fill the role of educator. Educational literature can be distributed in building lobbies and at community safety events where law enforcement agencies are exhibiting. The local sheriff is likely to field many inquiries from the public regarding driver licensing. Relatives frequently turn to law enforcement when they don’t know where else to go for answers, to seek advice on how to convince loved ones that it’s not safe for them to drive anymore, and to learn what alternative means of transportation are available when they can’t provide rides to specific events. These real-life examples will be replayed repeatedly in the future as more members of our society age to the point where they eliminate driving from their lives.

The local sheriff typically isn’t funded or staffed at levels that will allow employees to drive the elderly to individual events. But law enforcement officers can act as a community referral source to elderly citizens. Officers can be trained to answer specific questions about the licensing procedures in their States and help families navigate the obstacles they might encounter as they try to determine transportation options for seniors who are no longer able to drive safely. Then they can refer citizens to the appropriate public or private agency charged with keeping seniors mobile in their own communities, and to other resources such as the area’s agency on aging.

Another situation that law enforcement must consider is a policy or a plan that addresses traffic citations. Law enforcement must be sensitive to the effects of aging on drivers. Yet at the same time they have to fulfill their public trust to keep communities safe. Line officers who issue warnings to elderly drivers in lieu of citing them may be doing the seniors, the seniors’ families, and their communities a disservice. Receiving a traffic citation may stimulate an elderly driver to reevaluate the decision to drive. Also, this citation may provide the impetus a family needs to help an aging loved one investigate alternatives to driving and to consider relinquishing a driver’s license. Law enforcement officers will continue to encounter senior drivers. Many seniors will display some signs of aging, such as reduced dexterity or hearing impairment. Officers and deputies should receive sensitivity training that prepares them for eventual interaction with senior drivers. They should be trained to differentiate between the elderly driver who is experiencing the effects of aging and the driver experiencing some form of dementia or confusion due to a medical condition such as diabetes.

Some law enforcement agencies have developed elderly driver programs. The level of sophistication is based on their community’s needs. The costs are measured against available resources and other community conditions. The next section identifies some law enforcement programs on the cutting edge of the older driver issue.

1 Principal source U.S. Bureau of the Census.
2 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration on Aging, A profile of older Americans: 2000 (Washington, DC: 2002).
3U.S. Department of Transportation, Bureau of Transportation Statistics, National Household Travel Survey 2001 Highlights Report, (Washington, DC: 2003).
4AARP. These Four Walls…Americans 45+ Talk About Home and Community. (Washington, DC: 2003)
5U.S. Department of Transportation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration “Rural/urban comparisons,” Traffic Safety Facts 2001, (Washington, DC: 2002).
6U.S. Department of Transportation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Safe Mobility for Older People Notebook (Washington, DC: 1999).
7U.S. Bureau of the Census.
8U.S. Department of Transportation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration “Older drivers Have Some Problems Negotiating Intersections,” Traffic Tech, No. 197, (Washington, DC: 1999).