Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Government plan aims to keep older drivers safe on road

The government has a five-star safety rating system for vehicles. It’s now asking whether it can do better when it comes to protecting the nation’s older drivers, with the help of technology.
Kevin Freking Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Silver could take on a whole new meaning when it comes to car shopping.

With more older drivers on the road, the federal government is contemplating a “silver car” rating system that will help identify which cars better protect elderly drivers and passengers in a crash.

Federal highway safety officials will investigate the possibility of such a rating system as part of a five-year plan designed to reduce the number of fatal and injury-causing accidents among older drivers.

The plan, released last week, also calls for more research into how technology could prevent crashes or reduce their severity. One promising technology warns drivers when their car has moved outside its lane. Another automatically applies the brakes when a car is destined to ram the vehicle in front of it.

Over the past decade, the number of fatal crashes in the U.S. has declined significantly, but the progress had been more modest for older drivers, and came to a halt last year when 5,560 people over the age of 65 were killed as a result of motor vehicle crashes, a 3 percent increase from 2011. Another 214,000 were injured, a rise of 16 percent.

The government has a five-star safety rating system for vehicles. It’s now asking whether it can do better when it comes to older drivers. They are expected to drive more miles and drive later into life than previous generations.

“Let me be clear. What we’re talking about here is information. Information is power. This is not something that is going to change the price of vehicles,” said David Friedman, deputy administrator for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. “The idea is to get consumers as smart as they can be about their safety choices when they walk into the showroom.”

About one in five drivers, or 35 million, currently are 65 or older. The aging of the 77 million baby boomer generation – those born between 1946 and 1964 – will add to the number of older drivers on the road. NHTSA’s plan focuses on helping them drive as safely and as long as possible rather than trying to restrict their driving access.

Outside safety analysts say the plan’s emphasis on technology was welcome because it should lead to more confident and safe drivers. Lane departure warnings and smart headlights that adjust based on distance to traffic are already available, but they are often considered a luxury item. Such technology will become more and more prevalent in the coming years, said Jodi Olshevski, director of the Hartford Center for Mature Market Excellence.

“The technology is evolving so quickly that understanding more about how it can benefit older drivers is really critical,” Olshevski said.

Friedman said the technology developed in recent years has done much to make cars safer when they crash. Now, the question is whether crashes can be prevented entirely. He said the “holy grail” for drivers, especially older drivers, is a vehicle that can drive itself.

“This is I think where a lot of folks would like to see us go. There’s incredible potential,” Friedman said. “It’s something we’re working day and night on to do the research to make sure it can be done right, it can be done safely and it can be done right out of the gate.”

Olshevski said the plan’s emphasis on keeping drivers on the road is the right one because it will help more of the elderly maintain their independence.

“Being able to get in your car and go where you want to go as long as possible and as safely as possible is important to quality of life as we age,” Olshevski said.

The plan also seeks to increase seat belt use among the elderly because the consequences of being unbelted are worse for them. For comfort reasons, some of those who use seat belts don’t use them appropriately.

In the coming months, NHTSA it will test public service messages aimed at increasing seat belt use and provide educational materials about ways car owners might be able to increase the comfort and fit of their seat belts.

The agency also released new guidelines for the states to improve safety for older drivers. One of the recommendations called for in-person renewal of driver licenses once a person hits a certain age if a state determines there is a problem with older driver crashes.

Another guideline called for all states to establish medical advisory boards that assess the medical fitness of individuals to drive. About two-thirds of the states have such boards.