More Seniors, More Meds, More Driving and What It Means

By Matt Schmitz  on May 8, 2014

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Compared to 40 years ago, there are a lot more senior citizens behind the wheel. Helping to keep them healthy enough to be on the road are improved modern medications. So, naturally, you have more older Americans taking more medications and driving much more than they once did.

Fatal Crashes Among Elderly Drivers Are Declining, IIHS Study Says

According to a new report from AAA's Foundation for Traffic Safety, 84 percent of Americans age 65 or older held a driver's license in 2010 compared with barely half in the early 1970s. In fact, one in six drivers on U.S. roads today are at least 65 years old, and they went on 20 percent more car trips and traveled 33 percent more miles between 1990 and 2009, while 68 percent of drivers 85 or older reported driving five or more days a week. Part of the reason for the increase is that seniors are remaining in the work force longer, with 25 percent of men and 18 percent of women continuing to work after age 65, resulting in nearly double the work-related commutes for the age group compared with two decades ago.

Meanwhile, 90 percent of those same drivers also use prescriptions medications, with two-thirds taking multiple meds, which can result in impaired driving. AAA says the research shows that seniors are "fairly cautious" about this and tend to regulate their driving accordingly. For example, three-quarters of senior drivers with a medical condition reported reduced daily driving.

The spike in older drivers on the road shows no signs of slowing down. As baby boomers age, licensed drivers older than 70 have increased 30 percent between 1997 and 2012, while Americans age 70 or older comprise about 9 percent of the population, according to the 2010 U.S. Census. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety expects the percentage of that age group to swell to 16 percent within roughly the next 35 years. The phenomenon has been dubbed the "silver tsunami."

But that may not be quite as dangerous a scenario as the conventional wisdom about older drivers might suggest. While crash rates rise on average after age 70, and even more after 80, IIHS earlier this year reported that the rate of fatal crashes among drivers age 70 or older fell 42 percent between 1997 and 2012, outpacing the decrease for drivers age 35 to 54 during the same period. The institute speculated that improved safety technologies in vehicles, as well as a healthier senior population, have contributed to the decline in deaths. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is even working on a "silver" rating system focusing on how well vehicles protect elderly occupants in crashworthiness tests.

Senior drivers can get personalized feedback about how prescription- and over-the-counter-drug interactions, as well as herbal supplements, can impact safety behind the wheel by using AAA's Roadwise Rx feature at SeniorDriving.AAA.com.

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News Editor Matt Schmitz is a veteran Chicago journalist indulging his curiosity for all things auto while helping to inform car shoppers.  Email Matt