More fatal accidents among older drivers, report finds

Older drivers are much more likely to die in intersection crashes, and with each passing year the task of making a left turn becomes more challenging, according to a report released Wednesday.

The exhaustive compilation of years of research underscores a dispiriting bottom line: The first baby boomers began turning 65 last year, and as more members join the ranks of elderly, their inability to navigate traffic is forecast to result in more highway deaths.

If there is an antidote, it’s one that will help all drivers: making the roads and the vehicles traveling them easier and safer to negotiate. Another safeguard for a swelling, less-able population: providing other transportation options and building more self-contained communities.

“The growing ranks of older Americans will far outpace previous generations with their level of ability and activity,” said Will Wilkins, executive director of the nonprofit research group TRIP, a partner in the report.

In 2009, 5,288 people age 65 and older were killed and 187,000 were injured in traffic crashes. They accounted for 16 percent of all traffic deaths and 8 percent of the injured, but they accounted for 13 percent of the population, according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The TRIP report said the number of deaths among drivers age 65 and older grew to 5,750 in 2010 even as NHTSA’s data showed that overall traffic deaths hit a record low.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say crash deaths per mile traveled begin to increase markedly after age 75 with deterioration in vision and the ability to reason and remember, as well as the rise of physical challenges such as arthritis and reduced strength.

The TRIP report, released Wednesday in partnership with the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, said intersections were particularly troubling to older drivers. It cited NHTSA data that showed that in 2010, 37 percent of all fatal crashes involving a driver age 65 or older involved an intersection. Among younger drivers, only 20 percent were related to an intersection.

The report also pointed to a University of Kentucky study that said left turns presented a bigger problem for older drivers. When turning left, seniors have difficulty judging appropriate gaps in oncoming traffic and estimating the speed of oncoming vehicles.

The report said clear, simple and brighter road signs, better street lighting, wider traffic lanes, longer merge and exit lanes, rumble strips and additional left turn lanes would help older drivers.

Innovations being introduced in vehicles also will help older drivers, including lane change warnings and devices that sound alarms when something is too close in front or back of a vehicle. Meanwhile, more robust transit options will help older drivers who are considering whether they should continue driving.

The District, Virginia, Maryland and 31 other states have special provisions for older drivers that include more frequent license renewal, vision testing and road testing.

The TRIP report, using 2010 data, said that the District’s 49,226 drivers over the age of 65 accounted for 4 percent of the city’s traffic fatalities. Maryland’s 557,898 older drivers accounted for 17 percent of fatal accidents. And Virginia’s 807,561 older drivers accounted for 18 percent of fatalities.

Both AAA and AARP publish guidelines to help people decide whether they should continue to drive. AARP notes warning signs such as too frequent “close calls,” dents and scrapes caused by fences, mailboxes, garage doors and curbs; getting lost in familiar places; having trouble with signals, signs or markings; confusing the gas and brake pedals; misjudging gaps in traffic; experiencing road rage or honking drivers; becoming distracted; difficulty turning around while backing up; and getting multiple traffic tickets or warnings.

Ashley Halsey reports on national and local transportation.
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