Crash seen more likely to kill older motorist


WASHINGTON - Drivers over 65 are nearly twice as likely to be killed in a serious automobile crash as those ages 55 to 64, according to a study released yesterday.

The study of nearly 4 million motor vehicle accident reports in Texas over 25 years from 1975 to 1999 found that the older a driver, the more likely that driver is to be killed in an accident where at least one person was injured. The study noted that older drivers tend to be more frail and might die from injuries that would not be fatal to younger drivers.

Drivers who were 75 and older were 2.5 times more likely to be killed, and drivers 85 and older were nearly four times more likely to die, according to the study conducted by the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M; University on behalf of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

News reports have focused on accidents caused by older drivers, such as the case last July when an 86-year-old man plowed through a crowded farmers' market in Santa Monica, Calif., killing eight people and injuring dozens of others.

But less attention has been paid to the fact that older drivers are more likely to be accident victims, said Bella Dinh-Zarr, AAA director of traffic safety policy.

Compared with drivers in the 55-to-64 age bracket, the report found that older drivers were more likely to:

Have been ill or suffered a physical impairment at the time of the accident.

Have suffered a "perceptual lapse" leading to a failure to yield the right of way or disregard traffic signs.

Have been involved in left-turn crashes.

Lindsay Griffin, lead author of the report who recently retired from the institute, said the Texas findings would probably be similar across the country.

Griffin said Texas' database of nearly 4 million crashes with injuries over 25 years produced a large enough sample to examine differences among the small population of people in their 80s and 90s.

Drivers over 65 have more accidents per mile than any group except teen-age drivers, said J. Peter Kissinger, president and chief executive officer of the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, a nonprofit organization created by the American Automobile Association in 1947.

The problems of older drivers will increase as the number of Americans over 65 doubles from about 35 million now to above 70 million by 2030, Kissinger said.

Making driving safer for the elderly and society in general will take concerted action by older drivers, their adult children and government agencies, Kissinger and Dinh-Zarr said.

While many elderly self-limit their driving, Kissinger said adult children must play a greater role in monitoring their parents and urging them to practice safer driving habits.

Older drivers should be encouraged to enroll in driver refresher courses and other driving courses aimed at the elderly, Dinh-Zarr said, noting that many insurance companies offer a discount for older drivers who enroll in such courses.

She said many states impose vision tests for older drivers but said AAA opposes restricting driving simply as a function of age. This year, Florida began requiring vision tests for all drivers 80 years and older when they renew their drivers' licenses.

Government agencies should spend more money designing road conditions that are friendly to the elderly, such as installing more lighting at intersections, using larger traffic lights and lengthening the time for lights, and providing sheltered left-turn areas, she said.

The proposed highway reauthorization bill passed by the Senate last week includes $25 million a year for six years to help states upgrade traffic safety for the elderly and handicapped.

Society also needs to help older people remain mobile even if they cannot drive, Kissinger said.

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