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NTSB Chair: No Driving Tests Targeting Elderly

There’s no “magic age” at which individuals should be made to stop driving.

That’s the view of Deborah Hersman, chair of the National Transportation Safety Board, who joined On Point Wednesday for a discussion of elderly drivers. Last week, she convened an NTSB forum on safety, mobility and aging drivers.

“I think there are a lot of drivers on the roadways – younger drivers, as well as older drivers – that might benefit from a road test,” Hersman told host Tom Ashbrook. “But I don’t think it’s something that should only be applied to older drivers at a certain age.”

It’s a divisive issue in the public policy arena, as legislators worry about balancing safety concerns with the rights of older Americans. And it hits home on a personal level, too, as families face difficult conversations with elderly relatives about their ability to drive safely.

Hersman did say that officials need to go further in addressing the problem of older drivers with dementia, and it’s an issue that needs “comprehensive” solutions. “Trying to limit a driver with dementia to, say, operating between twelve and two [o’clock],” she said, “is like telling a drunk driver that they can operate between twelve and two.”

Listen to the interview below; excerpts from the transcript follow.

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TOM ASHBROOK: Why this issue? Why now, chair Hersman?

DEBORAH HERSMAN:  Well, you know, I think the really important thing for all of us to recognize is that we’re all getting older. But the statistics are showing us that – for us in the United States – that by 2025, in just fifteen years from now, one in every five drivers on our roadways is going to be over the age of 65. We are not really good at assessing people’s driving abilities. And we really need to have better coordination between the medical community, the licensing community, and also individual drivers. I think the most important takeaway is: There is no magic age at which individuals should stop driving. It is very individualistic, and it needs to be assessed in consultation with an individual driver and their doctor, and their family, and also the licensing agencies.

TOM ASHBROOK: I’ve been reading a lot on this, and I’m not sure on the answer to this question: Is it a problem overall for a country to have a lot more older drivers on the roads? Is that a problem?

DEBORAH HERSMAN:  Well, you know, I think that they’re probably a lot of people that have preconceived notions about older drivers and their abilities, but I think the things that we learned in our forum last week was that older drivers are our most experienced drivers, and they’re very safe drivers. They tend to buckle up. They don’t driver after they’ve been drinking. They don’t speed. They also are very good at self-selecting areas where they might be uncomfortable driving. And we see that older drivers are safe, but they also tend to be more frail or more fragile and if they’re involved in an accident, they are much more likely to be seriously injured or die. So an accident that you or I might walk away from with some injuries, an older driver might be hospitalized with serious injuries, and may ultimately die from those injuries. And so we need to make crashes more survivable for older drivers.

TOM ASHBROOK: And what about the public menace headlines that we see and have seen for years, you know – the older driver plowing into the school yard or through the windows at Wal-Mart   ? And people say, “Oh, good lord! Who’s keeping tabs on this?” Is that just the rare and scary incident or is there a, you know, public safety problem?

DEBORAH HERSMAN:  I think that older driver events do tend to probably capture more public attention, and we do see accidents that involve things like pedal misapplication that involve younger drivers too. But we see often catastrophic events that involve older drivers. One of the things that we do know is that as we age there are some age-related conditions, medical conditions, and also other things that slow down as we age – whether it’s our response time or other things. And so for older drivers we want to make sure that they have plenty of information, good feedback, they have plenty of advanced notice of things, good signage. But, you know, all of those things really help all drivers. But there is an area where I do think that we need to be focused and paying a little bit more attention – and that has to do with older drivers that have dementia. Because our panelists really talked about this as being a primary concern because these drivers have some severe challenges and they have some cognitive limitations and that needs to be addressed, and that needs to be addressed in a comprehensive way. Trying to limit a driver with dementia to say, operating between twelve and two [o’clock], is like telling a drunk driver that they can operate between twelve and two. We would never do that. And so if somebody is not in the condition to be safe behind the wheel, we need to address that as well.

TOM ASHBROOK: And chairman Hersman, finally, what about testing around the country? You know there are different laws in different states. But are we testing adequately so that old people themselves are given feedback on their capacity for driving at a certain age? I don’t know, whether it’s 75 or 85 or 90, any age? Do we have the proper testing regime in this country?

DEBORAH HERSMAN:  I think that’s an area that really could benefit from some best practices and some good data and information. We have a patchwork system across the country. In the U.S. some states require in-person renewals. Some states require vision tests after a certain age. And even yet, other states may require over-the-road tests, or driving tests, behind-the-wheel tests. And so we are very interested in trying to figure out what might be the best way to approach this in a fair and reasonable way and that’s supported by the data. And we are looking at some of those states that have done some innovative things. We’re looking at states like Iowa, who actually have done more advanced road testing and putting on some restrictions as drivers age. And part of this is to allow drivers to continue potentially driving longer – just limit the areas, and limit their risk exposure.

TOM ASHBROOK: Let me get you on the record: Do you think as chairman of the NTSB, should we have road tests for drivers of a certain age regularly, or not?

DEBORAH HERSMAN: I don’t think that we have a good sense of whether or not that’s appropriate. I think there are a lot of drivers on the roadways – younger drivers, as well as older drivers – that might benefit from a road test. But I don’t think it’s something that should only be applied to older drivers at a certain age. And I don’t think everybody’s agreed upon what the right age for that is. But I think that we need to get better with our screening tools and also our assessment of individual ability. Once we get into a position where we actually have tools that work, then I think we need to consider some widespread application. But I think the jury is still out about whether or not those screening and assessment tools are accurate enough to widespread deploy across the country.  

-With help from staff assistant Jessica Willingham.

This program aired on November 17, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.

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