This Is Why Senior Citizens Get Into Accidents — And Here's What We Can Do About It

Senior drivers can benefit from a free refresher course. The rules of the road have changed since they were first licensed. (Photos: AARP).

We’ve all been there — having to tell aged relatives that it’s time to stop driving. With me, it was my grandfather, who was getting the old Chevy out of the garage largely by feel. Its rear quarter panels looked like relief maps of the Himalayas. I think he was scaring himself, so he went along willingly. The National Safety Council even has a report on this: “Time to hand over the keys?

Actually, some older drivers can probably prolong their time at the wheel, with a new refresher course offered by AARP for people 50 and older. (I know, the senior years skew younger every year.)

It turns out that a lot of the problem is turning — a third of all fatal accidents involving seniors take place at intersections, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Some 35 percent of all of their traffic violations occur because of failure to yield, and one in four are due to improper left turns. Neglecting to stop at a traffic signal is the other most common issue.

An AAA/Carnegie Mellon study points out that accident fatality rates climb sharply after age 65. And, eek, look at this: For drivers 75 to 84, the rate of traffic deaths per 100 million miles driven is about the same as it is with teen drivers. For 85 and over, the death rate is four times that of teens.

But let’s point out also that many older drivers have a wealth of experience to draw upon, and a Ben-Gurion University study adds that seniors don’t lose their ability to perceive hazards ahead, and that they’re actually more sensitive to them than young drivers. And (see below) they adjust their mirrors!

older driver adjusts the rearview mirror

By 2020, 38 million drivers will be older than 70. Every day, 10,000 people turn 65 — and most of them are still piloting a car. On the road today, 15 percent of all drivers have achieved senior status. For everyone’s sake, we need to keep these folks as sharp as possible.

According to Julie Lee, a vice president of AARP Driver Safety, “Many older drivers haven’t had any kind of refresher course since they took driver’s education when they were 16. Many things have changed since then — roads, vehicles, and themselves as drivers. Our course encourages them to look at speeding, running stop signs, merging into lanes, making left-hand turns and sharing roads with motorcycles and bikes — which is much more prevalent today.”

Left turns are problematic, because they put older drivers into crowded situations where they have to navigate across traffic. AARP points out that three right turns will often put you in the same place. And it encourages annual checkups to measure stopping distances and reactions. “We use the three-second rule,” said Lee. “You have to leave enough space between you and the driver in front that you have time to react when something occurs.”

Daughter drives with mother in the passenger seat

AARP claims that 97 percent of the older drivers who take its course change their behavior as a result of it. They might, for example, self-regulate and no longer drive at night — instead driving in the low-traffic window of 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Or they might choose to let someone else drive (as in the photo above).

The classes cost $15.95 for AARP members (and $19.95 for non-members), but may entitle graduates to an insurance discount. They're offered all over North America (Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, too!) taught by 4,500 volunteers in 18,000 host locations.

There's a great and rather impressionistic older-driver video here. And here's one from the Volpe Center with some surprising conclusions about older drivers — which can also be addressed with a refresher course: