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Are Senior Drivers Safer Drivers?

Conventional understandings beg challenge. The conventional understanding is that middle-agers are the ‘safest’ drivers, sandwiched as they are between the ‘unsafe’ teen/early 20’s drivers —‘unsafe’ because of their inexperience and propensity for risk-taking— and senior drivers—‘unsafe’ because of their declining faculties and increasing fragility.

This conventional understanding about middle aged drivers was recently challenged by Abbotsford police. Statistical compilations showed that, in the last two years in Abbotsford, the average age of the drivers involved in 22 fatal collisions was 40—the height of middle age—and that there were no teen fatalities. To bring this ‘anomaly’ to the public’s attention, they ‘unveiled’ a mock letter label —‘M’ for mature driver—to remind middle-agers of their need to be “vigilant about their driving behaviours.”
Common sense supports the wisdom of this reminder. Middle-agers are super busy people these days tasked with lots of driving for lots of purposes: commuting, shopping, ferrying kids and teens to and from school and recreational activities, volunteering, visiting …the list is endless. And in the midst of so much activity demanding so much attention to innumerable details, there remains the ever present need to focus on the seemingly routine driving task at hand.
Even when driving is the only available quiet time, a chance to collect and organize thoughts, this still doesn’t add up to focusing fully on driving. And despite the new-ish laws against using hand-held cell phones while driving, it’s no wonder cell phone use while driving has reportedly become the most frequently spotted driving infraction in BC. In short, the anomaly of middle-agers having becomess higher risk drivers comes as no surprise.
Numerous studies have demonstrated that by age 70 the risk of crash per kilometer driven doubles and the rate of serious injury and death from car crashes rises dramatically. Now that seniors are becoming the most rapidly growing segment of the driving population, research efforts are intensifying to improve the health, safety and quality-of-life for Canada’s older drivers. This trend will involve screening tools for identifying which older drivers, for whatever reason, are unsafe to continue operating a motor vehicle or require more in-depth evaluation.
And some of this research is challenging the conventional understanding. For example, a recent report from the US Insurance Institute for Highway Safety shows a change in these trends for older drivers:
“Nationally, older driver passenger vehicle fatal crash involvement rates declined steadily during 1997-2008 and declined at a pace that far exceeded declines experienced by drivers ages 35-54. Based on analyses of crashes in 13 states during 1997-2005, it appears that the declining fatal crash involvement rate for older drivers is due, at least in part, to declines in their overall crash rate and their increased crash survival rate.”
The report goes on to list a number of improvements that might explain these findings including improvements in the general health of older drivers, in medical services, in vehicle crashworthiness and the availability of safety features, and in seniors’ increasingly self-regulating their driving times and distances.

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