The most riveting issue in the 1990s senior-driver phenomenon is this long-familiar and controversial one: Just how safe--or dangerous--are older drivers?
To senior-advocacy organizations, such as the politically influential American Assn. of Retired Persons, the image of older drivers is too often a negative one. "There are still too many people who believe that all older drivers are a menace on the road," said Michael Seaton, national coordinator of AARP's driver-education program.
Such a depiction, however, is simplistic and stereotypical, Seaton argued, adding that the negative image is bolstered by media accounts of older drivers, ranging from senior motorists who become disoriented and lost to those involved in fatal freeway accidents.
Statistically, the picture is a mixed one. According to state and federal researchers, the most common accidents for older drivers involve turning, right-of-way and other intersection maneuvers.
Moreover, these researchers found, the accident rates overall for drivers 60 and older tend to be lower than or similar to those in the middle-age brackets, but far lower than the more accident-prone 16-to-34 brackets.
Consider these California Highway Patrol figures for 1989:
The 60-to-64 age group accounted for 4.9% of drivers. They were in 2.9% of fatal accidents and 2.6.% of injury accidents.
Those over age 65 represented 11.2% of the state's licensed drivers. They were involved in 7.3% of fatal accidents and 5.6% of injury accidents.
But the 20-to-24 age bracket, 10.6% of the drivers, had the highest incidence rates. They were in 17.6% of fatal accidents and 16.6% of injury accidents.
Yet the statistical picture for seniors changes drastically when studies take into account the far fewer miles that most older drivers travel. When this per-miles-driven factor is applied, the senior driving record seems far riskier. By age 70, the per-mile accident rate rises substantially. By age 80, the rate escalates.
In a recent National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report, the nationwide "crash involvement" rate for the 16-to-19 age group was distinctly high--28.6 crashes per 1 million vehicle miles traveled.
Although the rates dropped markedly for the middle-age brackets, as low as 3.7 in the 40-to-49 group, they began to rise slowly in the senior range, reaching 6.4 at ages 70 to 74 and 7.7 at ages 75 to 79. After that, the crash incidence rose dramatically--15.1 at ages 80 to 84, then 38.8 at ages 85 and older, the highest rate.
This mileage-based accident pattern is also the case in California, according to the state Department of Motor Vehicles. While the statewide rate for the 16-to-19 age group was 1.63 accidents per each 100,000 miles, the highest rate, 2.57, represented the 80-and-above age group.
Also, the state DMV last year found that most of 4,139 drivers whose licenses were revoked or suspended--under one "lack of skills" retesting category--were 75 or older.
California imposes only one licensing law aimed at the senior driver. When drivers reach the age of 70, they can no longer take advantage of the state's mail-in renewal and must go to a DMV field office to take the vision test.
A few other states have imposed more stringent older-driver laws. For instance, New Mexico requires those 75 or older to renew their licenses annually. Illinois mandates drivers 69 and older to take a road test at each renewal.
Such laws are discriminatory, said Seaton, adding that AARP instead endorses any improvements in driver licensing and related practices that can be applied to all age groups. AARP is especially laudatory of an older-driver education program adopted by 29 states and the District of Columbia. California's Mature Driver Improvement Program, launched in 1987, is typical. The courses discuss the severe effects of aging on vision, coordination and other driver capabilities, as well as review roadway rules, defensive driving and the effects of medication and alcohol.
The largest sponsor of these classes is AARP, whose eight-hour, $8 course is called "55 Alive/Mature Driving." In 1990, AARP enrollment reached 350,000 nationwide. In Orange County, AARP classes are currently taught at 34 sites, mostly senior centers. Call AARP's regional office at (213) 427-9611 or the Orange County Area Agency on Aging at (714) 567-7500 for more information on classes.
But the appeal of these courses goes beyond educational value. Under the program, drivers who complete the course are entitled to an insurance premium discount, which in California ranges from 5% to 10%. In most states, including California, the driver has to be at least 55. To continue receiving the discount, the driver has to take the course every three years and maintain a good driving record.
A state survey in 1989 found Mature Driver Improvement graduates had 16% fewer fatal and injury accidents than senior drivers not in the program, according to Ray Peck, the DMV's director of research and development. This year's survey, he said, found no significant reduction in the graduates' accident rate.
Nevertheless, course advocates argued that such programs have already done much to focus on "the fact that there are many more safe and able older drivers out there than people realize," said Bob Watson, AARP's driver-education coordinator for California.
And the mounting numbers of such older drivers, Watson added, "have reached a point where people in our society can no longer ignore this phenomenon--or easily lump all senior drivers into one neat little stereotype."