Elderly drivers prone to automobile accidents

November 27, 2003, vol. 28, no. 7
By Howard Fluxgold

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Older drivers have a higher risk of accidents at intersections than younger drivers, but the ravages of aging aren't the only reason for the crashes.

That's the contention of Sarah Laing who wrote a thesis for her master of arts in gerontology titled: A study of age differences in accident rates at intersections in B.C.

“When I looked at the B.C. data I found that the proportion of intersection accidents increased with age,” she says. “Older drivers actually have fewer accidents than most other age groups, because there are fewer of them. But mathematically they are more likely to have an accident than most other age groups.”

Laing believes that the outdated design of the intersections is partially to blame for the higher accident rates. “I think the research shows that we need to re-evaluate the environment we created,” Laing asserts. She found that many intersections had confusing left turn lanes and that there were too many distracting signs and lights. As well, there were too many exits and entrances - for example, to gas stations and convenience stores - at intersections. These factors tended to cause confusion for older drivers especially those over 70.

“We built these intersections and designed our roads for the middle-aged driver who was the average driver when the roads were designed,” notes Laing. “Now, the majority of the driving population is aging. We need to look at the driving environment and make some simple changes to make it more conducive to older drivers.”

For example, signage is a key factor in confusing and distracting drivers. Laing pointed to the numerous commercial signs surrounding many intersections that increase the visual complexity for the driver.

She adds that left turn signs at intersections are too small and advocates a reduction in the number of entrances and exits at intersections.

In her thesis, Laing reviewed statistics for intersection accidents in Vancouver and throughout the province. She compiled accident rates for drivers from age 16 to over 80 using five-year age groups. Most studies refer to older drivers as those over 60 and lump everyone from 60 to 80 and over into one age group.

“By looking at narrower age groups we were able to see that not all older drivers have difficulties with some of these factors and when they do have difficulties - like with left turn treatments - we find that younger age groups also have difficulty,” she notes.

She says the elderly have serious concerns about losing their licence because it represents independence to them.

“We need to come up with affordable and accessible means of transportation if people are going to relinquish something like a driver's licence that you need to survive as an individual in our society,” she contends Laing refers to her thesis as a pilot study and says a larger study needs to be done. In the meantime, she is working to implement some of her thesis recommendations and attempting to publish her findings in an academic journal.

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