Study puts brakes on old-driver myths Effect of aging called overstated

May 09, 1993|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Staff Writer

The image of the elderly driver as a menace on the road ha been exaggerated by the way researchers look at traffic statistics, according to a study released last week by the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health.

The analysis of traffic accidents shows that although the fatality rate for drivers begins to rise appreciably at age 70, the risk grows at a slower rate than previously thought, the study contends.

Furthermore, it suggests that the effects of the aging process on driver safety have been overstated by the way previous traffic studies compared elderly with young and middle-aged people at a given period of time. That fails to take into account the driving habits that each generation exhibits over a lifetime, the study's author asserts.

"The changes in engineering of the vehicles and in infrastructure alone don't totally explain the six decades of reduction in fatality rates," said Leonard Evans, a principal research scientist with General Motors Research. "There's an ongoing evolution in behavior, and that's harder to quantify."

Dr. Evans' conclusions were based principally on an examination of fatal traffic accidents for a 16-year period, between 1975 and 1990. The results appeared in an article in the American Journal of Epidemiology, published by Johns Hopkins.

What makes the study unique is that it tracked the same drivers as they aged. People 40 years old in 1975, for instance, were tracked with people who were 41 in 1976, 42 in 1977, and so on.

That is different from all previous approaches -- studies that were "snapshots" examining the total population at a given period in time, Dr. Evans said.

While the traditional method is factually correct, looking at today's young drivers against today's older drivers contains a bias, he said. It assumes that everyone has the same abilities at the same age.

Dr. Evans said his research shows people today perform better behind the wheel of a car than people the same age did in past generations. The automobile has become more incorporated in everyday society, he said, and there is more seat-belt use and less drunken driving.

The study's results seem to bear that out. For instance, drivers who are 70 today had higher fatality rates 50 years ago when they were 20 than 20-year-olds do now.

While today's safer cars and better roads account for much of the drop in accidental deaths, Dr. Evans concluded that young ** drivers today also act more responsibly than young drivers of two generations ago. He surmised that in 50 years, today's 20-year-old would be a better driver at 70 than today's 70-year-old.

"When people become substantially old, their crash rates do increase somewhat compared to age 40, but the rates for young people are far, far higher than for older people," Dr. Evans said.

The study noted that fatality rates for older drivers rise, in part, because elderly people are more likely to be killed in a serious accident. All factors being equal, an 80-year-old male is four times as likely to die as a 20-year-old male in a crash of the same severity, Dr. Evans said.

Officials with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said they have not reviewed the article. But a spokesman said the federal agency doesn't generally perceive the growing numbers of older drivers as a significant safety problem in the same way as drunken drivers or people who don't wear seat belts.

"You really don't see a big change until age 75 or so," said George L. Parker, associate administrator for research and development at the agency.

The study comes as advocacy groups for the elderly complain that the media unfairly portray the older driver as a danger on the road. Much of that image has been based on random accidents, not scientific data, said Steve Lee of the American Association of Retired Persons.

Last year, a car driven by an 87-year-old man jumped the curb at O'Hare International Airport and ran into a group of children, killing one and injuring others. The incident drew attention, but was hardly part of a trend, Mr. Lee said.

While some driving skills deteriorate as people age, the elderly tend to be cautious motorists who drive less, stay near home, speed less, drink less and drive less at night.

"I think this perceived older driver problem is not a very large problem," said Mr. Lee, a transportation planner. "It isn't like elderly people are involved in high-speed chases."

Mr. Lee said Dr. Evans' findings confirm his belief that states do not need laws restricting elderly drivers.

Sixteen states and the District of Columbia impose age restrictions on driver's licenses.

Maryland requires first-time driver's license applicants who are 70 or above to provide a doctor's note attesting to their physical and mental abilities.

Chuck Hurley, spokesman for the Arlington, Va.,-based Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, said Dr. Evans' study is "very much in line" with the latest traffic research. He said that while the elderly may pose a greater accident risk, they tend to recognize their limitations.

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