Today, one in four licensed drivers are aged over 60. By 2028, one in four New Zealand drivers will be 65 years or older and as health technology improves and more people live longer, that number will increase. In the not-too-distant future, a third of the population will be in the 60 to 90 age group.
Recognising the significance of this, the AA Research Foundation commissioned WSP Research to investigate the implications of having more older drivers on our roads. The research involved looking at existing statistics, surveying older drivers, examining the implications for infrastructure and talking to driver training experts about the problems that older drivers face.
Are older people higher-risk drivers?
WSP Research Leader Bill Frith says the research debunks the myth that older people are higher-risk drivers.
In reality, he says, older drivers are involved in proportionally fewer crashes than middle-aged drivers. However, due to increased fragility, when they do crash they're more likely to get hurt than younger drivers.
"As the population ages, projections indicate a 33% increase in fatal and serious driver injuries by 2063,” Bill warns. “To combat this, we must create a transport system that's more forgiving to older people, which benefits all drivers in the process.”
What situations are more dangerous for older drivers?
One source of concern is intersections.
"Older drivers are up to 2.5 times more likely than younger drivers to have fatal or serious crashes at intersections. Most of our roading infrastructure is designed for the quicker reactions of younger generations but, with an ageing population, it's time to drive change on our roads,“ Bill says.
The report recommends more roundabouts instead of traffic signals or signs, more warning signage about upcoming intersections, especially where lane choice is critical and better right-turn support.
As we age our eyes’ ability to see things under blue light reduces, so better lighting and road marking is needed. The report strongly recommends LED street lighting that emits less blue light and that only reflectorised signs and road markings be allowed. It says consideration should also be given to wider edge and centre lines to improve the amount of light reflected. All of this will add costs and need to be maintained, but will help all drivers.
Older drivers may be less likely to crash than younger drivers, but that is partly because many restrict their driving to avoid situations that make them anxious. These include driving in busy traffic, at higher speeds, in heavy rain, driving at night and driving when the sun is low, creating glare.
And it’s not just physical conditions that are concerning older drivers; other drivers also play a part in making our roads unwelcoming for them. Bill says supporting older drivers and creating age-friendly driving environments will not only reduce older driver’s anxiety but contribute to safer roads for everyone.
What happens when you can't drive anymore?
Perhaps one of the most difficult issues facing people as they age is transitioning to life without a car. The researchers surveyed more than 800 people who had taken part in the AA Senior Driving Programme, free for drivers aged over 74. It found only one in ten older people had made plans to live without driving. Numerous studies have found that the period of early retirement is usually quite busy, with people travelling and many becoming involved as consultants or volunteers. But as we age our mileage decreases. The study found 56% who stopped driving did so because of some sort of medical problem. The effect was clearly hard on mental health, as two in three of those who stopped found they had less engagement in social events and activities. One in three felt isolated.
Cycling as an alternative to driving is not widely considered a safe option. Among the survey respondents, only 3% chose to cycle after giving up driving.
Public transport also has its limits. Surveys by both Statistics New Zealand and Research New Zealand have found almost a third of older people don’t feel safe waiting for public transport, females more than males, so they don’t use it. Once again older people’s suppressed needs can become less obvious to authorities due to their discretion. That said, the bus was still more popular (28%) than dedicated shuttle services and paid driving companion services (16% each).
After giving up driving, most people rely on help from friends or family members for transport. The study found 84% of older people relied on others to get around in this way.
What driver training options are available for older drivers?
With almost a third of older drivers stopping or curtailing their driving due to anxiety, research partner AA Driving School was pleased to see the positive impacts of its Senior Driver programme. Some 68% said it had given them more confidence in their driving, 40% that their knowledge of road rules improved and 39% that their risk awareness increased. These sessions are fully tailored to the individual and strive to help support our Members to stay active and mobile into later life.
AA Driving School General Manager Roger Venn says: “With an ageing population in New Zealand, we’ll continue to look at ways we can support our Members on their driving journeys as they get older and will investigate new avenues of support, driven by the findings from this report.”
Find more information for senior drivers
Learn about the changes to the driver licensing system for older drivers and read our tips on how to be safe on the road as an older driver.
- Renewing your driver licence aged 75+
- How ageing can affect your driving
- Physical and mental fitness
- Reviewing your driving skills
- When your driving routine should change
- Medications and driving
- Being assessed by a specialist
- Preparing for the on-road safety test
What do you think about this research? Share your thoughts in a letter to the editor.
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