According to the U.S. Department of Transportation National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), “older drivers (defined as people 65 years and older) represent a significant and increasing proportion of American drivers.” While 32.2 million licensed drivers were at least 65 years old in the United States in 2008, it is estimated that there will be approximately 40 million drivers 65 and older by 2020, suggesting that as many as a quarter of all drivers will be over 65 by 2025!

Most states do not currently have an upper age limit for maintaining a driver’s license, including California. However, a rapidly aging population as well as several national reports of serious and sometimes, fatal, injuries caused by accidents involving older drivers, calls into question just how old is too old to drive.

Despite high-profile accidents, such as a 100-year-old man injuring 14 people, including 11 children, as he was backing his car out of a Los Angeles grocery store parking lot in August 2012 or the infamous case of 86-year-old George Weller killing 10 and injuring 63 people when he drove through the downtown Santa Monica farmer’s market in 2003, “older drivers are often unfairly demonized,” according to Anne McCartt, senior vice president for research at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), during an interview with Slate.

McCartt explained to the magazine that older adults “are less likely than other groups to speed and drive drunk. And no group of drivers is more hazardous than teenagers, with their combination of inexperience and recklessness.” Unfortunately, “although seniors have an overall crash rate comparable to that of 20- and 30-year-old drivers,” the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety states that, “they are the most fragile drivers on the road, with a higher death rate per mile driven than any other group.”

So what does that mean? Should all drivers surrender their driver’s licenses once they are eligible for social security? Not at all. In fact, the NHTSA believes “it is important to distinguish between medically at-risk drivers and healthy older drivers.” To that end, the NHTSA has developed an Older Driver Program Five-Year Strategic Plan 2012-2017 to address many of the concerns and issues facing our aging population of drivers, specifically how to disseminate useful tools and information to help older drivers maintain their licenses as well as how to develop community outreach programs to “address the safety needs of older drivers” and test at-risk drivers regardless of age.

It is important to help older adults to maintain as much independence as possible, including discussing and planning for the physical and mental challenges that may affect their ability to drive. Rather than eliminating their right to drive altogether, older drivers might consider voluntary measures to reduce the risk to themselves and others, including no longer driving at night or on a major highway and avoiding driving during rush hour traffic or during bad weather. While some older adults who are no longer able to drive or do not feel comfortable driving may be able to take advantage of public buses, subways or taxis, many rural areas do not offer such services. And while some communities and assisted living facilities offer free or low-cost transportation to bring senior citizens to doctor appointments, supermarkets and pharmacies, or even recreational trips to community centers, libraries, a local mall or movie theaters, many elderly adults who are still living in their own homes are left stranded without a driver’s license.

In Part II of Too Old To Drive? we’ll take a look at some of physical challenges older drivers face as well as some new technologies, equipment and resources that may help aging adults keep their driver’s license and continue to drive safely.

If the time has come that you or a family member is no longer able to maintain an independent lifestyle, contact ElderLink to discuss elder care services and options available throughout California.