WASHINGTON (Bloomberg) -- U.S. drivers age 65 or older will increase from 15 percent to 20 percent of the driving population by 2025, prompting a safety panel to consider recommendations such as new designs for automobiles and roads, and testing requirements for elderly motorists.
The issue of older drivers is a “rising tide” as the U.S. population ages and life expectancy increases, Deborah Hersman, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said Tuesday at a forum in Washington on older drivers. “The real challenge for all of us, whether it's for our parents or for us, is when do you reach that point” to stop driving, she said in an interview.
The meeting marks the first time in its 40 years that the agency has looked at safety issues involving older drivers. “We want to know what the risks are and what some of the possible mitigations are,” she said.
The board, which issues recommendations to improve transportation safety, could use its evaluation to suggest automobile or road designs that would be safer for older drivers, Hersman said.
Ford Motor Co. developed an inflatable seat belt that might shield older motorists, who are more susceptible than younger drivers, from chest injuries, Stephen Rouhana, Ford's senior technical leader for safety in the passive safety research and advanced engineering department, told the board.
The board also might recommend medical-related considerations for licensing older drivers for whom dementia is a particular concern, Hersman said. The NTSB considered medical- and age-related causes of a 2003 accident in Santa Monica, California, where an 86-year-old man drove his car through an outdoor market killing 10 people.
32 million drivers
Licensed drivers age 65 and older number more than 32 million today and are more likely to die or be seriously injured in crashes than younger people behind the wheel, Hersman said.
“America is aging,” she said. “Baby-boomers are now well into their middle years. More and more seniors are on the road than ever before.”
The safety board, based in Washington, investigates transportation accidents and recommends safety-related changes to regulators, lawmakers and companies.
Aging drivers may face risk from illnesses, including dementia, Bonnie Dobbs, who directs the Medically At-Risk Driver Centre at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, said at the forum. Licenses for drivers with cognitive impairments must be restricted just as a drunk driver wouldn't be allowed behind the wheel, she said.
“It's the medical condition we have to be most concerned about,” Dobbs said.
Motor-vehicle deaths per capita increase markedly for people 70 years old to 74 years old, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Fatality rates per mile traveled increase starting at age 75 and increase more after age 80, due largely to the susceptibility to injury, according to the Atlanta-based center.
Older drivers may have decreased vision, cognitive function and physical abilities, the CDC says. The public-health effect of these motorists is offset by their safer-driving habits: They wear seat belts more often, tend to limit driving to when conditions are safest and have lower incidents of drunken driving.
Toyota's unintended acceleration
Age may have been an issue in reports of unintended acceleration in Toyota Motor Corp. vehicles, which U.S. auto- safety regulators and federal lawmakers investigated this year.
Of the 19 fatal Toyota accidents involving unintended acceleration in which the driver's age was known, 10 were older than 60 and five were older than 80, according to U.S. Transportation Department data. The median age of drivers in fatal accidents in 2008 was 39, according to U.S. fatal accident data. The median age, where the data was available in the Toyota crashes, was 61, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration records.
“This isn't just about age,” said Elinor Ginzler, AARP's senior vice president for livable communities. “It's about the individual, the circumstances of the accident, whether you're the driver or passenger.”
In an interview, Ginzler said the discussion about older drivers also should include making sure people who stop driving can still get around.
AARP is a lobbying group for senior citizens based in Washington.