In-depth look: Teens lead in vehicle accidents, but elderly more vulnerable

Elise Zwicky TimesNewspapers
A representative from the Secretary of State's office teaches a Secretary of State Rules of the Road class at the Fondulac District Library May 20.

TAZEWELL COUNTY — A “silver tsunami” that began five years ago when the first wave of America’s baby boomers began turning 65 has led to an increasing number of older drivers on the road.

The perception that these older drivers are more likely to cause an accident isn’t quite accurate according to statistics, but most people will have to deal with the issue at some point, either as an older driver or as the adult child of a senior who may no longer be safe to drive.

According to a report generated by the Illinois Department of Transportation, seniors 65 and older accounted for 3.2 percent of serious injury car crashes, while teen drivers age 16-19 accounted for 9.4 percent of serious injury accidents statewide in 2014, the most recent year for which numbers are available.

 “Seniors tend to be safer drivers by full numbers. However, there are two factors we need to think about,” said Elin Schold Davis, an occupational therapist and project coordinator for the Older Driver Initiative of the American Occupational Therapy Association. “One is that seniors are more vulnerable to injury in a crash, and the other is there’s a group of medically at-risk seniors that are aging with medical problems that affect their vision, cognition or physical ability. It’s a smaller slice of seniors, but a more dangerous slice that are more likely to have an accident.”

How often a senior has to renew his license or whether she needs to be tested for it depends on where the senior lives. Nineteen states require older drivers to renew their driver’s licenses more often than younger drivers, nine states require them to take a vision test when they renew and others have the same renewal requirements for all ages.

“Illinois has the most comprehensive laws in the nation designed to help senior drivers remain safe drivers,” said Henry Haupt, deputy press secretary for Secretary of State Jesse White. “At age 75 and older, seniors must take a road exam at each renewal. At age 81 and older, they must come to a SOS driver services facility every two years to retest. At age 87 and older, they must come in every year and retest. It is important to note that regardless of someone’s age, if they can navigate the roads safely and responsibly and pass all relevant tests, they can obtain and/or renew their driver’s license.”

Illinois State Police Safety Education Officer Ross Green said the state police have programs geared toward teen driver safety but none currently aimed at older driver safety.

“Each officer is afforded the discretion to have a driver retested by the SOS office if they feel the driver may show signs of driving incompetence,” Green said.

Several driver refresher courses are available for older drivers through the Secretary of State’s Office. Upcoming courses in Tazewell County take place June 15 at the Morton Public Library, July 15 at the Fondulac District Library in East Peoria and July 20 at the Miller Senior Center in Pekin.

Last year 4,852 seniors attended 794 Rules of the Road classes offered by the Secretary of State’s office, according to Haupt.

The American Occupational Therapy Association, in connection with AAA and AARP, offers an educational program called CarFit that gives older adults the opportunity to check how well their personal vehicles “fit” them. Run by a team of trained technicians and/or health professionals, the 20-minute program also provides information on community-specific resources that could enhance their safety as drivers.

In Illinois, CarFit is currently only available in the Chicago suburbs, but Schold Davis said the program, plus more extensive programs run by occupational therapists designed to help older drivers, could be made available downstate if there’s a demand.

“We’re trying to increase the capacity and get more OTs involved,” she said. “But we also have a problem with (seniors) not wanting to go because there’s a fear that we’re trying to take their license away, which is absolutely not true.”

During driving evaluations, an OT can help an older driver stay on the road by recommending such things as hand controls, pedal extenders and mirror and seat belt adaptations.

While these programs can help older drivers stay safe on the road longer, there’s likely to come a time when it’s necessary to hand over the keys, and it’s crucial to talk to older drivers about the issue long before that time comes, Schold Davis said.

“What’s dramatically different today is my father planned to drive to his funeral, and he pretty much did. He drove to his last hospitalization. Now, with people outliving their eyeballs and their physical abilities, let alone cognition, it’s projected that women will outlive their driving ability by 7 to 10

years and men by 5 to 6 years,” Schold Davis said.

Illinois State Police Trooper Ross Green added, “This is a very difficult time for a family because essentially, by not letting them drive, they are taking away a senior citizen’s independence to some degree. A family should take seriously the safety and well being of their family member. I would recommend a family member observe the person’s driving often to be able to identify possible issues with alertness and forgetfulness of traffic laws.”

A recent random survey of 600 seniors aged 70 and older in the United States and Canada by Home Instead, a network of in-home care services for seniors, found that 95 percent had not talked to their loved ones about driving, though 31 percent said they would reconsider driving if family or friends recommended it.

“As adults, we don’t hesitate to talk to our teenage children about driving, but when we need to address concerns with our own parents, we drop the ball,” Schold Davis said.

To help families navigate these sensitive conversations, Home Instead has launched a public education program called Let’s Talk about Driving. The free program includes an interactive safe driving planner to help families assess their senior loved one’s driving habits and provides tools to help older adults drive safely, consider options for driving reduction or cessation and identify alternative transportation options.

“The ability to drive gives seniors the freedom to do what they want, when they want — and we want to respect that independence,” said Linc Hobson, franchise owner of the Home Instead office in Morton. “Proactively talking about driving with seniors allows them to take an active role in deciding when and why their driving should be reduced or eliminated.”

Potential warning signs that a senior may be losing the confidence or ability to drive may include unexplained dents, trouble turning to see when backing up, increased agitation while driving and riding the brake.

For more information, visit the website AAA also has information at on how to talk with a senior if there are concerns about driving, as well as information to help seniors make that decision.