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NTSB forum examines growing population of elderly drivers

By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 9, 2010; 7:55 PM

With the number of people 65 or older expected to double in the next three decades, the elderly are driving more often, are taking longer trips and seem rooted in communities where getting around by car is the only option.

The graying of the roads prompted the National Transportation Safety Board this week to host its first forum on aging drivers to analyze the impacts of the change.

Within 15 years, people 65 and older will make up more than 20 percent of the driving population, officials said. Research shows that elderly drivers are getting into fewer deadly automobile accidents, but even those who try to select the safest hours of the day to drive can't escape heavy traffic if they live in congested urban regions where "rush hour" has expanded to encompass more of the day.

"Why aren't they getting into more crashes?" asked Sandra Rosenbloom of the University of Arizona during the conference at the NTSB's L'Enfant Plaza headquarters. "I don't think we have good data on that."

Though highway fatalities have dropped overall in the past few years, the declines have been dramatic among the elderly, declining by half among those over 80.

A national panel assembled for the conference said the absence of additional research left the cause of the difference open to speculation.

"Drivers who drive a lot tend to have fewer crashes than those who don't," said Ann Dellinger of the Centers for Disease Control.

"When there is a crash, older drivers are less likely to die," said Anne T. McCartt of the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety and author of the most recent comprehensive research on older drivers. "We don't have a good explanation for this yet."

In part, she said, it may be because older drivers are more healthy and fit than they once were. The fact that older drivers are more comfortable driving at high speeds than earlier generations of elderly means they spend more time on safer, modern highways.

"I think older people now are very different than they were even five to 10 years ago," McCartt said. "Part of it is health and part of it's lifestyle. What old age is is not what old age used to be."

Though the middle-class retirement havens in the Sun Belt continue to grow, the overwhelming majority of baby boomer retirees are opting to stay in the suburban communities where they raised their families. Life in most of those places requires a car.

"There is tremendous tension between safety and mobility," Rosenbloom said. "As people age in place, the largest percentage of older people live in lower-density places. Cars are the only feasible mobility in many of these places."

Even those who move to warmer locations tend to make car-centric choices in buying their homes, said Rosenbloom, an expert on travel patterns of the elderly. She pointed to a map of Tucson that located concentrations of elderly, revealing that most of them were on the outer fringes.

"Those who do move are moving out to the boonies," she said.

The issue of when to give up driving that has bedeviled generations will become more pronounced given those challenges, she said.

"A lot of people will continue driving when it's no longer safe because they have no alternatives," she said.

There is no particular age at which people should stop driving, the panelists agreed.

"It's usually illness, not age, that impairs an individual's ability to drive," said Bonnie Dobbs of the University of Alberta. "Men outlive their driving careers by six years. Women outlive their driving careers by 7 years."

Even in settings more forgiving than suburbia, giving up driving can lead to isolation for the elderly.

Older women often stop driving before men of the same age.

"It tends to be women who give up driving earlier than they need to," Rosenbloom said. "One of the reasons women give up driving is that their husbands tell them they're bad drivers."

Family members sometimes step in to encourage parents to give up driving, but they often are slow to accept the older person's declining capabilities.

"The driving is the canary in the coal mine," Dobbs said. "When driving becomes impaired they can't explain it away anymore."

Rosenbloom said children often "willfully ignore" their parent's deteriorating driving skills because they won't want to face issues of ferrying them around or relocating to their own homes or another facility.

"They say, yes, they're worried, but they're equally worried about what it's going to mean to me," she said. "They see this crushing wave of responsibility coming at them."

halseya@washpost.com The forum is open to the public and is scheduled for 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. on Wednesday. The NTSB's conference center is located at 429 L'Enfant Plaza in Southwest Washington. The conference may also be viewed on the Web at ntsb.gov.

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