Drinking & Driving in the Senior Years: A Recipe for Disaster
Older drivers using alcohol or drugs are much more likely to be at fault in a car crash.
Researchers studying the issue say that calls for sober-driving campaigns aimed at seniors.
"Our research shows just how much aging increases the risk of being at fault for injury or fatality in a drug- or alcohol-related traffic accident," said lead author Dr. Satish Kedia. He's a professor in the division of social and behavioral sciences at the University of Memphis School of Public Health in Tennessee.
His team's analysis of nine years of U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data revealed that substance use in older drivers increased the likelihood of being at fault in a crash by two to four times.
The researchers looked at alcohol, marijuana, stimulants, narcotics, depressants and hallucinogens.
Overall, older drivers are less likely to report using such substances, according to the study.
But in a sample of more than 87,000 drivers involved in crashes between two moving vehicles, more than one-third were drivers over 70 who tested positive for substances, the investigators found.
“In general, older drivers are at an elevated risk for being at fault in a fatal car crash, this is especially the case when they are under the influence of alcohol or drugs,” Kedia said.
In the more than 43,000 pairs involved in two moving-vehicle crashes, substance use was reported in 42% of drivers. Nearly 2,000 of them were 70 or older. More than 1,400 were over 80 years of age.
The relative crash involvement ratio was 2.56 for those over 80, and 1.17 for drivers in their 70s. Yet, it was relatively low for drivers aged 20 to 69, according to the report published April 28 in the journal Traffic Injury Prevention.
Substance use disproportionately increased the probability of being at fault during a crash, regardless of the driver's age, the study authors noted.
Even after adjusting for sex, road grade, weather, light, distraction and speeding, older drivers with substance-impairment were still twice as likely to be at fault.
“Obviously, we do not want to dissuade older people from driving, but knowing the risks involved and taking precautions can help everyone," Kedia said in a journal news release. "We just want to persuade them to drive safely for the sake of themselves and others.”
In 2020, nearly 48 million people aged 65 and up were licensed to drive in the United States — up 68% since 2000. About 7,500 of these older people died in crashes and 200,000 were injured in 2020.
“There is no question that driving helps older adults stay mobile, enjoy more activities, and maintain independence,” Kedia said. “But it is really important that this is done within the context of the law."
The study authors said older folks need information about interactions between prescription medications and alcohol that can affect their motor skills and reaction time.
Policymakers can begin with commonsense steps to increase roadway visibility and create dedicated left-turn lanes to make driving easier for older drivers with visual limitations, the authors suggested.
"Another implication is that health care professionals and prevention specialists trying to develop best practices for deterring drugged driving must ensure that their intervention efforts address the specific needs of older adults,” Kedia said.
New car technology may help, including blind-spot detection and automatic tightening in seatbelts. Other considerations could include more frequent license renewal after age 65, along with in-person vision and knowledge tests. Referrals for assessment of mental and functional abilities could also be considered.
"Our findings indicate the need for concerted efforts to prevent both drunk and drugged driving for all age groups, especially among older adults,” Kedia said.
The most effective deterrents are strong laws on driving while intoxicated and strong enforcement of them, including sobriety checkpoints, according to the study.
Researchers from the University of Memphis, University of Tennessee Health Science Center, Kent State University in Ohio, and Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania collaborated on the study.
The U.S. National Institute on Aging has more on safe driving for older adults.
SOURCE: Traffic Injury Prevention, news release, April 28, 2023