Road Safety Authorities and non-government organizations place much focus on road safety and the younger generation – but often neglect the older road users. The group of elderly road users is getting increasingly larger and our road safety strategies should pay more attention to the possibilities and limitations of this group of road users.
In the coming decades, the number of elderly road users will increase considerably and so too their fatality rate in traffic. When involved in traffic crashes the risk of severe injury is considerably higher because of their physical vulnerability.
We need to discuss road safety and the risks to older people and recommend measures to enhance the safety of these road users!
Facts and Numbers
- As the elderly are less agile and resilient, the likelihood of being killed as a pedestrian is more than twice that for younger adults
- Every fifth person killed on roads in Europe is aged 65 or over - it is estimated that by 2050 one death out of three will be an elderly person, if their safety level does not improve.
- The elderly are more likely to be severely injured or killed in a crash. The fatality rate of the 65-74 year olds is about twice that of the 30-64 year olds. The fatality rate even is eight times higher for the over-75s.
- With the same impact force, the death rate is approximately three times higher for a 75 year old motor vehicle occupant than for an 18 year old. The physical vulnerability has the severest consequences during 'unprotected' journeys such as walking and cycling.
- Older drivers find it more difficult to judge the speed and intentions of other drivers. From the age of around 45 most of us need glasses to see well either at a distance, close up or for both. For example, by around the age of 60 our eyes will normally require three times more light to see as well as when we were aged 20.
- The fatality rate of elderly drivers is considerably lower than that of elderly cyclists and pedestrians.
- The death rate is particularly high for elderly cyclists
Who do we regard as elderly / old road users?
- This is not something to be judged with reference to an exact number of years and days!
- We often refer to the elderly road users as people of 65 years and older.
- Rigid age boundaries do not take into consideration the fact that ageing is a process that does not start at the same age for each and every individual, nor does it progress at the same pace.
- We need to acknowledge that there are large differences in driving skills between people of the same age, as well as in their physical and mental abilities.
- Some 85 year olds are in better shape than certain 40 year olds.
Factors contributing to risk level of older road users
Why does the older age group pose a significant road safety risk? Are there specific factors that impact on their safety? The road safety of elderly road users is determined by two factors: functional limitations and physical vulnerability.
Functional limitations are those factors that determine why they are more likely to be involved in a crash. These can be summarized as follows:
- Ageing is most likely accompanied by the slowing down of observation, decision making, and movement processes, and a decreased capacity to carry out more than one task simultaneously.
- Ageing also manifests in a decline or slowing down of movements, a decline in muscle strength, a decline in the finely tuned coordination, and a particularly strong decline in the ability to adapt to sudden changes in bodily position.
- In traffic where there is pressure of time and the necessity of dividing one's attention, this can have negative road safety consequences.
- There is a high demand of motor functions and sensory, perceptual and cognitive actions in activities such as walking and cycling
- Sudden movements more rapidly cause loss of balance and falling among the elderly.
- Functional limitations do not automatically cause unsafe traffic behaviour as older road users compensate through other characteristics, such as insight in their limitations, experience and changes in behaviour.
Increased Physical Vulnerability
The increased physical vulnerability brought about by ageing contributes to crashes having a worse outcome for the elderly.
- Increased physical vulnerability, like for instance osteoporosis, is the result of biological processes which makes people more sensitive to external forces, such as a crash.
- The physical vulnerability has the most severe consequences for unprotected modes of transport such as walking and cycling.
- Physical vulnerability also influences the injury severity of drivers.
Characteristics of driving behavior from the elderly / Older Road User
Letting go of their vehicles is often a traumatic experience for the elderly – seen as a farewell to part of their social lives. Not all the elderly pose a disproportional danger to other road users. They are more often severely injured themselves (killed or hospitalized) in a collision with other motorists than that they, as motorist, cause severe injury to other road user (drivers or other types of road user).
The elderly often compensate through their driving behavior:
- They benefit from the insight into their own limitations and driving experience
- They compensate by driving when the roads are less busy
- Studies have shown that the elderly more often choose to drive during daytime and dry weather.
- The elderly on average have a great deal of driving experience which gives them the ability to anticipate on possible problematic situations.
- They display a diminishing desire for excitement and sensation when getting older.
- They will less often drink-drive than younger adults and generally obey the traffic rules more often
Road Safety Measures aimed at improving safety
- Family members and physicians should be proactive in ensuring the safety of their loved ones on the road, especially if they are afflicted or impaired with a condition that may hinder driving abilities.
- Friends should flag a friend who might be driving unsafely and pose a risk to other road users
- Family members might be in the best position to convince the elderly to go for a medical assessment and check on the important physical abilities required for driving
- Authorities must provide public transport alternatives and general infrastructure improvements to serve the mobility needs of the senior citizens
- New development should allow the elderly to use their experience and existing automatisms
- This could allow complex tasks to be performed in parts (e.g. crossing the road in phases), in which the elderly can repeatedly view the situation from a safe place and themselves can determine how to deal with time pressure
- Important infrastructure features stand out by means of good lighting and markings rich in contrast.
- Improvements could include better pedestrian crossing facilities