Even healthy seniors with safe driving records are at greater risk for making driving mistakes as they get older, according to a study published online by the American Psychological Association journal Neuropsychology.
Unlike other studies of older drivers, which focus on people with dementia or conditions that could impair performance, this Australian study looked at 266 people ages 70 to 88 who were healthy and living independently, and who drove at least once a week.
Study participants completed cognitive tests and questionnaires about their driving history before they drove on a 12-mile route through city and suburban streets in Brisbane. A professional driving instructor rode in the car, which was equipped with an extra brake on the front passenger side for safety. An occupational therapist sat in the back seat and scored the drivers on errors, including failure to check blind spots, speeding, sudden braking without cause, veering and tailgating.
Results of the study
All types of driving errors increased with age for both men and women. Blind spot errors were the most common mistake, followed by veering across lanes and failure to use turn signals. During the test, 17 percent of drivers made critical errors requiring the driving instructor to step on the brake or grab the steering wheel.
The youngest group of drivers, ages 70 to 74, had an average of less than one critical error, and the oldest group, age 85 to 89, had an average of almost four critical errors. Participants who had reported an accident during the five years before the study had a higher rate of critical errors.
Lead researcher Kaarin J. Anstey, a psychologist who directs the Aging Research Unit at Australian National University, said in a press release she does not advocate restricting driver's licenses based on age.
"In other research, we have shown that age-based restrictions reduce overall driving rates among older adults, but they don't reduce the rate of driving by those with cognitive impairments," Anstey said in a press statement. "We need evidence-based driver screening tests along with training for older drivers and alternative transportation for those who can no longer drive safely."
However, the study could have implications for skill-based driving tests and training for older drivers--improved driving skills could lead to fewer accidents and lower car insurance rates.