WASHINGTON — Remember "The Little Old Lady from Pasadena"? Baby boomers who first danced to that 1964 pop hit about a granny burning up the road in her hot rod will begin turning 65 in January. Experts say keeping those drivers safe and mobile is a challenge with profound implications.
Miles driven by older drivers are going up and fatal crashes involving seniors coming down, but too often they are forced to choose between safety and being able to get around, experts told a recent National Transportation Safety Board forum on transportation and aging.
Within 15 years more than one in five licensed drivers will be 65 or older, the safety board said. Their number will nearly double, from 30 million today to about 57 million in 2030, according to the Government Accountability Office.
Smarter cars and better designed roads may help keep them stay behind the wheel longer.
But eventually most people will outlive their driving ability — men by an average of six years and women by an average of 10 years. And since fewer Americans relocate when they retire, many of them probably will continue to live in suburban homes.
The result is a "mobility gap," Joseph Coughlin, head of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's AgeLab, which develops technologies aimed at keeping older people active, said in an interview.
"For many, our homes will not be just a place to age, it will also be house arrest," said Coughlin.
Older drivers who are healthy aren't necessarily any less safe than younger drivers. But many older drivers are likely to have age-related medical conditions that can affect their driving.
A 40-year-old needs 20 times more light to see at night to see than a 20-year-old, Coughlin said. Older drivers generally are less able to judge speed and distances, their reflexes are slower, they may be more easily confused and they're less flexible, which affects their ability to turn so that they can look to the side or behind them.
Fatal crash rates for older drivers compared with other age groups begin to increase starting at about age 75, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Drivers over age 85 have a worse fatality rate than teenagers and drivers in their early 20s.
The main reason is that older drivers are more frail and less likely to survive an accident or recover from injuries, according to the institute. Older drivers primarily kill themselves in crashes, with these accounting for 61 percent of deaths in accidents involving drivers 70 and older. Sixteen percent of the deaths were their passengers.
Nevertheless, the fatal crash rate for older drivers has declined over the past decade, and at a faster rate than for other drivers. Researcher Anne McCartt of the insurance institute told the board the reason for the trend isn't clear, but it may be that older drivers are in better physical condition.
Many older drivers compensate by changing their driving habits.
"I'm never in a rush," said Grace M. Sanders, 87, a retired secretary in Atlanta. She takes care to map out a route in her mind before she leaves the house. If it's raining, she stays home.
New technologies may help older drivers stay behind the wheel longer, and more safely. Crash warning systems using sensors embedded in the car can alert drivers to an impending accident. They can even override the driver and apply the brake. Night vision systems can help.
Sometimes it's just a matter of making dials larger so they're easier for drivers to find. A strap can be added to hold onto when getting in and out of a car. An extended mirror can help drivers avoid turning around as much.
"They may extend the driving careers of some seniors, but they are certainly not a panacea," cautioned Bonnie Dobbs, a gerontology professor at the University of Alberta. She notes that many technologies could distract or confuse older drivers, which could lead to accidents.
What's not being addressed is how to keep older Americans mobile after they lose their driving skills, said University of Arizona professor Sandra Rosenbloom, an authority on transportation and aging.
"As people get older and lose the ability to drive, they narrow and narrow their circle of friends and their circle of activities until it gets to the point where they are housebound and they don't move at all," Rosenbloom said.
Marcia Savarese, 73, of Vienna, Va., suffered a stroke in 2008 and didn't drive for a year. A widow and retired estate jewelry dealer, she depended on friends, expensive taxis and delivery services.
Now, she's back on the road despite a loss of some of her peripheral vision.
"I feel it is safer for other people if I stay right in the local area that I know," Savarese said.