Aged 65 and over, mature drivers (also referred to as older drivers) represent a growing segment of America's licensed drivers but face an increased risk of traffic-related injuries and fatalities. In 2020 there were 6,549 people 65 and older killed and an estimated 233,235 injured in motor vehicle traffic crashes.1
Older drivers are keeping their licenses longer and driving more miles than in the past and, in 2015, less than 1% of fatalities among people 70 and older were caused by motor vehicle crashes. However, fatal crash rates (per vehicle mile traveled) begin to increase significantly for those aged 70 to 74 and are highest among drivers 85 and older. This heightened risk is largely due to older drivers' increased vulnerability to injury, rather than a higher likelihood of getting into crashes.2
Mature drivers often face impairments in three functions that affect driving abilities – vision, cognition and motor function:
Adequate visual acuity and field of vision are critical for safe driving but tend to decline with age. Glare, impaired contrast sensitivity and increased time needed to adjust to changes in light levels are problems commonly experienced by mature drivers.
Driving requires a variety of high-level cognitive skills, including memory, visual processing, attention and executive skills. Certain medical conditions (such as dementia) and medications that are common in the older population have a large impact on cognition.
- Motor Function
Motor abilities such as muscle strength, endurance and flexibility are necessary for operating vehicle controls and turning to view traffic. Even prior to driving, motor abilities are needed to enter the car safely and fasten the seat belt. Changes related to age and diseases such as arthritis can decrease an individual's ability to drive safely and comfortably.
Changes in vision, physical strength and cognition can contribute to a loss of self-confidence in the ability to operate a motor vehicle. However, losing one's drivers license is equated by some older adults with a loss of independence and personal freedom. Faced with this choice, some mature drivers risk personal injury rather than give up their license.
According to the American Medical Association, mature drivers have a higher risk of traffic fatalities not only because they tend to be involved in more motor vehicle crashes per mile driven than middle-aged drivers, but also because they are more physically fragile than their younger counterparts.
State motor vehicle and local law enforcement agencies have different perspectives on the risks of mature drivers. As the driving population ages, states are enacting legislation putting certain restrictions on drivers.
The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety has developed the website Driver Licensing Policies and Practices, which contains an online database of state driver licensing policies and practices affecting older and medically-at-risk drivers. This free resource also includes innovative programs that licensing officials, policymakers and others can use to address the needs of older and medically-at-risk drivers.
1 National Center for Statistics and Analysis. (2022, September). 2020 Summary of motor vehicle crashes: 2020 data. (Traffic Safety Facts Research Note. Report No. DOT HS 813 369). Washington, DC: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
2 Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. "Older Drivers." December 2017. http://www.iihs.org/iihs/topics/t/older-drivers/fatalityfacts/older-people.