Older Adults and Driving: Challenging Stereotypes

older female driver behind the steering wheel of a car

As the saying goes, “Age is just a number!” and there is no specific (upper) age limit on driving. In fact, some older adults continue driving past the age of 100 with good driving records.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, adults aged 65+ are expected to increase from 16 percent of the population in 2019 to over 21 percent of the population by 2040 and the average life expectancy continues to increase. This means that older adults will make up an increasingly larger percentage of the future driving population.

Health and age-related changes can present barriers to safe driving. Vision-related ailments such as cataracts and glaucoma, hearing loss, cognitive-related changes, strength and coordination decline, mobility-limiting arthritis, and the side effects of medications are just a few of the challenges that older drivers may face. However, many older drivers can compensate for these changes and continue driving, with modifications such as avoiding driving at night or in bad weather conditions, avoiding potential distractions such as phone or radio use, and sticking to familiar routes and neighborhoods.

Many of us may know a person (or two or three) whose driving style may not be to our liking, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are poor or unsafe drivers. Elder drivers may be subjected to criticisms that they are too slow or too old to be driving and that they should hang up their car keys. While a valid driving safety concern may sometimes be the case, stereotypes that most older adults are bad or unsafe drivers should be challenged.

Most older adults are NOT unsafe drivers

The American Automobile Association (AAA) reports that drivers in their 60s are the safest drivers on the road! And according to Centers for Disease Control data, older people are more likely to wear safety belts and that they are less likely to drink and drive. Other research has found that older adults are more likely to follow speed limits and less likely to drive at night or to text while driving. Clearly, the safe driving habits of older adults should serve as a model to all drivers.

Older people do NOT experience the most accidents

According to AAA, drivers aged 60–69 have been found to be the safest drivers–those who are involved in the fewest crashes. Even drivers aged 80+ are involved in fewer car accidents per miles driven than drivers under 30.

Unfortunately, due to increased frailty, drivers aged 80+ are at the greatest risk of suffering fatalities when accidents do occur (see AAA, above). According to the AAA, “fragility” is the cause of more than half of older adult traffic fatalities. A 70-year-old driver is four times as likely as a 20-year-old to die in an accident of the same intensity.

Christina Clem of AARP Washington cited a 2021 study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which found that, as the older adult population has aged, there has been a significant decline in fatal crashes among drivers 70 and older, especially compared to middle-aged drivers. This may be attributed to trends towards better overall health and life expectancy and an increase in car safety features, as well as increased years of driving experience among the older adult population.

Have you ever heard someone say that older adults should stop driving at a certain age?

While the average age to stop driving is 75, each driver’s situation must be assessed individually, regardless of age. The decision to stop driving or to encourage a loved one to stop driving can be very difficult. While safety comes first, the decision to stop driving can also have significant consequences to the health and well-being. For instance, older adults who stop driving have been found to have an increased risk for depression and other health problems (“Driving Cessation and Health Outcomes in Older Adults,” Chihuri et al., 2016).

When older people stop driving, they are more likely to depend on others for vital tasks such as grocery shopping and transportation to medical appointments. The ability to access social activities may also be reduced, increasing the risk for loneliness and social isolation. Loneliness and social isolation have been found to negatively impact both physical and mental health and well-being (Cumulative effect of loneliness and social isolation on health outcomes among older adults,” Barnes et al., 2022).

The Takeaway …

Older Adults are often unfairly subjected to stereotyping and stigma regarding their ability to safely continue driving as they age. While the natural human aging process does generally lead to changes that can affect the ability to drive, such changes are not universally experienced. Just as individuals’ health and abilities differ, determining a potential need for changes or modifications to driving routines will be unique to each individual situation.

If you have concerns about the driving quality or safety of someone you care about, Clem points to an AARP program called We Need to Talk. This resource offers a guide for assessing a loved one’s driving and offers sensible and sensitive approaches to discussing current or future driving concerns.

For older people looking to maximize their years of safe driving, there are many programs and resources, such as AARP’s Smart Driver™ online refresher course, which offers safe driving support for older adults. For more information, visit AARP Driver Safety.

Keep an eye out for Part 2 of Older Adults and Driving in a future issue of AgeWise King County for information about resources for older adults who no longer drive!

Gillian-DuncanContributor Gillian Duncan is an intern with Age Friendly Seattle. She is enrolled in The Ohio State University Master’s in Social Work program.

This article originally appeared in the September 2022 issue of AgeWise King County.