80-year-old truck driverThe National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is working on a new five-year strategic plan to improve road safety for older drivers and passengers, as Matt Schmitz reports for Cars.com in an article appearing in USA Today. The plan, which the agency announced on Thursday, will focus on vehicle safety, data collection and driver behavior, Schmitz writes.

As the Associated Press reports in an article appearing in The Washington Post:

About one in five drivers, or 35 million, currently are 65 or older. The aging of the 77 million baby boomer generation — those born between 1946 and 1964 — will add to the number of older drivers on the road. NHTSA’s plan focused on helping them drive as safely and as long as possible rather than trying to restrict their driving access.

Over the past decade, the number of fatality crashes in the U.S. has declined significantly, but the progress had been more modest for older drivers, and came to a halt last year when 5,560 people over the age of 65 were killed as a result of motor vehicle crashes, a 3 percent increase from 2011. Another 214,000 were injured, a rise of 16 percent.

The vehicle safety part of the plan involves a “Silver” rating system to assess safety features in new cars, Schmitz writes, notably advanced technologies such as vehicle-to-vehicle communications, collision avoidance and crashworthiness. Certain state-of-the-art safety features — such as lane departure warnings and smart headlights that adjust based on distance to other vehicles on the road — are available now but mostly on luxury cars; in the future they will be available on more affordable vehicles, said Jodi Olshevski, director of the Hartford Center for Mature Market Excellence, as AP reports.

David Friedman, deputy administrator for the NHTSA, told AP that the “holy grail” for drivers, especially older ones, is a vehicle that can drive itself, which is something NHTSA is working on “day and night … to make sure it can be done right.” (This blog reported earlier this year about a study showing that older drivers welcome safety technology.) Olshevski said the NHTSA plan is right to emphasize keeping older drivers on the road because it will help more of the elderly maintain their independence.

The driver behavior part of the plan will include public education and the all-new Older Driver Highway Safety Program Guidelines, based on best practices around the county, Schmitz writes. One element of the plan will be testing public service announcements aimed at encouraging more of the older generation to use seat belts as some people do not use them correctly, AP writes.

The new program guidelines seek to help states improve safety for older drivers, AP notes. One recommendation calls for in-person driver’s license renewals once a person reaches a certain age, if a state finds a problem with older-driver crashes. Another guideline is for all states to create medical advisory boards to assess people’s fitness for driving. About two-thirds of U.S. states already have such boards, AP says.

For the data collection part of the plan, NHTSA will continue to refine the way it examines crash rates and injuries, and to examine studies of physical, cognitive and perceptual changes associated with drivers’ behavior as they age, Schmitz writes. Along those lines, a person identified as George posted a comment to the Cars.com article urging researchers to look at environmental studies that point to the role toxins may play in harming people’s driving ability as they age: “The older population, age 50+, have accumulated a lifetime of toxins that has slowed their cognitive function, and diminished reaction ability.”

Image by NCDOTcommunications.

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