Why Older Drivers Aren't a Highway Menace

Older drivers may bear the brunt of many jokes, but according to the AARP, they often get the last laugh. (Photo: Little Moon /Shutterstock).

Trust the AARP to put a positive spin on driving while aged. The iconic group, a force to be reckoned with when it comes to the rights of the retired, says that the cliché about older motorists being a menace on the roads is all wrong. What those 50-and-over lack in eyesight and reflexes they make up for by following the Boy Scout motto: “Be Prepared.”

A survey of 1,202 adult respondents found 84 percent saying they feel “very prepared” before taking a car trip of more than 50 miles, and 14 percent saying they’re “somewhat” prepared. According to Julie Lee, vice president and national director of AARP driver safety, "Older drivers are some of the safest drivers around, because they have a lot of driving experience. And they take more precautions before they get on the road, particularly for longer trips."

Other findings:

  • Eight of 10 go over their vehicle, always adjusting mirrors, checking dashboard warning lights and making sure that servicing happens regularly. A majority (64 percent) even check to make sure their headlights are working. And 57 percent check the oil level, 53 percent test the wipers and 51 percent methodically make sure the tires are properly inflated. How many of you smartphone-toting millennials bother to do any of that stuff?
senior man checking the rearview mirror in car
He never forgets to adjust his mirrors!. (Photo: AARP)
  • Gen Y won’t turn back unless they forgot a cellphone, but your average silver fox remembers to make sure there’s a good spare tire (98 percent), cash (92 percent) and safety equipment like flares, warning triangles and reflectors (70 percent). And 67 percent belong to a roadside assistance program. Says Lee, "My 20-year-old wouldn't think twice of driving to Maine in a blizzard. If there's gas in the car, he's good to go."
  • Older drivers frequently phone ahead to say when they expect to arrive (62 percent) and make plans to avoid rush hours (54 percent). Nearly 40 percent report always packing food for the trip, and 44 percent plan ahead where they’re going to eat. That’s way different than just stopping when you see the Golden Arches. And 30 percent say they routinely factor in rest breaks along the route.
  • The study found that “in general, the extent to which drivers engage in vehicle preparation increases with age.” I know you’re thinking, “Well, they’ve got time on their hands,” and that may be true to a certain extent. But older people are also less likely to waste their time playing Candy Crush or texting friends.

On the other hand...

Older drivers are on the increase, so should we be worried? By 2025, the 65-and-older set will be a quarter of the drivers on the road, compared to 15 percent in 2001. And only about 10 states require seniors to take a road or vision test. Check what your state does here.

But a RAND study, in the wake of a lot of concern about dangerous behavior from seniors, finds that they’re just 16 percent more likely than the larger pool of adult drivers to cause an accident. Panic wouldn’t seem to be warranted: In 2008, older people accounted for 15 percent of all traffic fatalities and 18 percent of all pedestrian fatalities.

senior couple securing a tree to the top of their car
Checking the safety straps before they take the tree home. (Photo: AARP)

The higher risk from older drivers “is much more modest than the conventional wisdom, fueled by stories of deadly incompetence, would have it,” said RAND. “And it is nowhere near the risk posed to the public by younger drivers. As shown in the figure, the youngest drivers are 188 percent likelier than adult drivers to cause a crash [emphasis added].” That's RAND's chart below.

The trend is in the right direction, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. “Nationally, fatal crash involvement of drivers 70 and older declined per licensed driver during 1997-2012 and per vehicle mile traveled between 1995-06 and 2008 at a faster pace than the rates for drivers 35-54 years old,” IIHS said. “The reductions were strongest among the oldest drivers (age 80 and older).”

The upshot is not to worry too much about older drivers, despite the occasional lurid (and scary) news report of mayhem caused by an out-of-control senior.