Business and government seek solutions to traffic safety challenges faced by aging driving population

Joanne Aanes Business Communications Manager 3M Traffic Control Materials Division

Enabling the nation's roadway system to accommodate an expected 50 percent growth in the senior population between now and 2020 is a key issue for both government and the private sector involved in transportation safety.

The aging of the baby boom generation is having a significant impact on society as a whole and specifically on the safety of our driving population. As drivers age, visual acuity decreases, especially at night, making it more difficult to safely guide a vehicle. It will be critical that the challenge be met with both public policy solutions and traffic safety improvements that can enhance safety and keep seniors mobile.

The impact of the aging of the boomers will change the demographics of the U.S. and the driving population.

  • In 1900, people age 65 and older made up 4.1 percent of the U.S. population. Today, this proportion has risen to 13 percent, and it is projected to rise to 20 percent by 2030.

  • During the past decade, the number of licensed drivers aged 70 years or older has increased by 45 percent. As the U.S. population ages, that percentage will continue to increase.

    The U.S. Department of Transportation in January 1997 released a report, "Improving Transportation for a Maturing Society." The report, which summarized a year-long study, indicated the increase in age of the driving population could pose safety problems for older adults in the future.

    Currently, motor vehicle crash statistics for older drivers reveal the following:

  • Per mile driven, drivers 75 years old or older have higher rates of motor vehicle crashes that result in a death than do drivers in all other age groups except teenagers.

  • Motor vehicle-related death rates per 100,000 are higher for people 70 years old or older than for people in any other group except those younger than 25 years.

  • In 1999, five percent of the people injured in traffic crashes were seniors, even though they travel significantly fewer miles than other age groups. Older persons made up 13 percent of all traffic fatalities, 13 percent of all vehicle occupant fatalities, and 18 percent of all pedestrian fatalities. (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, U.S. DOT).

    Older drivers rely on their vehicles and wish to remain mobile and independent. This presents two types of problems: physiological and cognitive. Research indicates that aging tends to take a heavy toll on a person's ability to see.

    According to research, the eye of the average 70-year-old person receives only one-third of the light received by an average 20-year-old. This means that an older driver's ability to see signs and other important driving cues declines sharply after dark.

    Because of a decline in cognitive abilities, older drivers need more time to process visual cues from signs and other objects in their environment. Research indicates that response time increases from 25 to 33 percent among older drivers. For this reason, drivers need more advance warning of curves, lane shifts, work zones, intersections, and other situations that call for a response from behind the wheel.

    The older driver's problem is frequently compounded by brightly lit commercial signs, building lighting, headlights from oncoming vehicles, and other sources of "visual noise" and "light pollution." To be effective, especially for older drivers, highway signs, pavement markings, and other guidance devices must break through the visual confusion to gain a driver's attention.

    While government agencies work to identify and implement public policy changes that can enhance the mobility and safety of seniors, many in the private sector are working to provide the improvements to traffic safety technology that can assist local, state, and federal government with those changes.

    Examples of traffic safety product advancements that are assisting older Americans include:

  • Traffic signs. Technological advancements in reflective sheeting are helping aging drivers because they make highway and traffic signs extremely bright and more readable at night, even at wide angles. National safety groups are advocating improved inspection and maintaining sign performance to a high level to ensure visibility to all ages, and especially aging drivers.

  • Roadway markings. Because older drivers lose their sharpness of vision and their ability to see high-contrast detail, they rely more heavily on clear delineation of the road ahead. Research has shown that pavement markings, such as centerlines and edgelines, can help reduce the number of accidents involving older drivers. New technology, such as high visibility tapes and raised pavement markers, as well as wider lines and liberal use of edgelines, are among the recommended countermeasures to improve delineation for aging drivers.

  • Pedestrian crossings. Each year in the U.S. more than 5,000 pedestrian fatalities result from motor vehicle crashes-about 17 percent of them senior citizens. Many of these accidents happen near schools, hospitals, recreation areas, bus stops, or senior citizen residences, where there is a great deal of pedestrian traffic. FHWA has approved the fluorescent yellow-green color for signing around pedestrian, school, and bicycle crossings. Fluorescent colors are especially visible at dawn, dusk, and in inclement weather when standard signing is less effective. Research has shown that fluorescent yellow-green signs caught the attention of drivers, helped them to slow down, and decreased the number of near-miss conflicts between motorists, pedestrians, and bicyclists.

  • Work Zones. Construction work zones are one of the most hazardous segments of any road system for both motorists and work crews. Drivers need traffic control devices that command attention because of their visibility and provide a clear, highly visible channel of navigation through the confusion. To address this need, many agencies are adopting fluorescent orange and other high performance reflective sheeting for signs, barrels, barricades, cones, and delineators.

    There are still many challenges to meet as America prepares for a growth in the aging driving population. Research, development, and the commitment of the private sector alongside the traffic improvement decisions made by the public sector can help create tomorrow's solutions today.

    For more information, please contact Joanne Aanes at 651-733-5416 or at jraanes@mmm.com.