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Crashes more threatening to seniors

The Associated Press

A report says that by 2030, drivers 65 and older will be involved in a quarter of fatal traffic accidents.


Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON – As baby boomers swell the elderly population, auto insurers would like to see cars and roadways that make more allowances for brittle bones and poor eyesight, including limits on air bag forces and road signs that are easier to read.

Drivers 65 and older will be involved in a quarter of all fatal traffic crashes by 2030, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety predicts in a report released today.

“Seniors are more fragile, so when they get injured, they die,” said study author Susan Ferguson.

“I think a lot of people think that elderly drivers are a menace to road users, and there is nothing in our data that shows that. They are just a menace to themselves because they die more often in crashes.”

The institute found drivers 70-74 are twice as likely to die in a crash as those 30-59.

And among drivers 80 and older, the risk of death is about five times as high.

A 1997 Federal Highway Administration study found that older drivers have a harder time seeing and understanding road signs than young and middle-age drivers.

The agency recommends communities make signs easier to read by using simpler designs, adding fewer details and using a color that contrasts sharply with the background.

The Michigan State Police Department is encouraging communities to use larger lettering on street signs and to erect signs warning motorists of approaching traffic lights.

The Michigan department also suggests reducing the number of signs at busy intersections.

In Rochester Hills, a suburb of Detroit, crashes have decreased since changes were made, said Betty Mercer, division director of the Office of Highway Safety Planning.

“They were able to demonstrate that it not only helped older drivers, it helps all drivers,” she said.

The Insurance Institute report calls for automakers to improve ergonomics for older motorists, install less rigid seat belt systems that won’t cause shoulders and ribs to break, and use air bags that inflate with less force.

When designing cars and trucks, engineers at Ford Motor Co. use a “third- age suit” that adds bulk, restricts joint movement, reduces the sense of touch and has yellow goggles that simulate cataracts to reflect problems that affect older drivers.

Ford also has designed an advanced safety system that collects information to determine how closely a driver is sitting to the steering wheel, whether front seat occupants are wearing safety belts and accident severity.

The system uses the information to control seat belts and air bags to ensure both accommodate older motorists.

The system was introduced for the 2000 Ford Taurus and Mercury Sable, and Ford plans to offer it standard in all vehicles in a few years.

“We want to protect everybody, but the biggest benefit is for seniors,” Ford spokeswoman Sara Tatchio said.

“We know that one of the audiences that we have to focus on for safety is seniors,” she said.

The report also called for more alternative transportation so seniors don’t have to drive.

Seniors often can’t use buses and other public transportation because they have to walk too far to reach the stops, according to the report.

The report cited Portland, Maine’s nonprofit Independent Transportation Network as one type of solution.

It operates like a taxi service for seniors at all hours of the day.

Some have suggested seniors should have to pass driving tests to keep their licenses.

But Ferguson said the tests often are not effective in predicting who will be involved in a crash. She said what you will end up doing is removing the licenses of a lot of people who have not been any kind of threat on the roads.

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