14 August 2018

Are older drivers really more dangerous?

 When an older person dies in a car crash, a common response from the public and media is to tighten up and extend licensing laws for older drivers.

But is this fair? Are older drivers more dangerous than other drivers or is it just another older person stereotype that needs to be kicked to the curb?

Research indicates that some of the safest drivers on today's roads are 65 and older and are in fact involved in fewer crashes than other age groups.

 According to NZ Transport Agency Road Safety Director, Harry Wilson:

 “As a group, older drivers are relatively safe, they tend to drive conservatively, travel fewer kilometres and do not deliberately drive unsafely. For many older New Zealanders a driver licence is an important factor in their independence and many senior drivers are able to continue driving safely well into their 90s and beyond.”

In 2008, 73% of New Zealanders over the age of 65 were still licensed. Fast forward to 2018 and it’s approximately 83% [1].

As our population ages, the number of older drivers on our roads is only going to increase. Understanding the myths and realities about older drivers is important not only for the general public and lawmakers but also for older drivers themselves.

During 2017 senior road users (i.e. drivers, passengers, cyclists and pedestrians aged 75 and over) made up:


  • 6% of the population
  • 10% of fatalities
  • 6% of all injuries


In 2017, senior road users (75 years and over) accounted for:


  • 654 injuries
  • 37 deaths


Wilson says it’s possible that older people are seen as worse drivers because they often come out far worse off when they do crash.

 “With the same impact force, the fatality rate is approximately three times higher for a 75-year-old motor vehicle occupant than for an 18-year-old one. That’s why the NZ Transport Agency recommends people buy the safest car they can afford, which can greatly reduce the risk of injury for an older driver in a crash.” 

The most common older driver crash situations are:


  • side–impact crashes at intersections – the side panels of cars are weak and this, combined with older road users' physical vulnerability, means the occupants are placed at greater risk
  • fatigue-related crashes, especially when driving in the mid-afternoon
  • driver error, such as putting their foot on the accelerator instead of the brake


Wilson says older drivers often compensate well for changes in physiology and cognition. They might pick and choose when and on what roads to drive, avoid heavy traffic or certain types of roads, and situations with low sun or at night.

At the same time, there’s no denying that deterioration in working memory, cognitive overload, and eyesight, all age-related conditions, can hamper driving.

According to British research, recovering from the glare of a low sun, for example, can change from two seconds of white out to as much as nine seconds. Physiological and cognitive deterioration can also prolong reaction time: over 65s can be 22 times slower than someone under 30, making manoeuvres difficult and potentially making driving dangerous [2].

But 65 year old Charlie Martin of Taupo says it’s not older drivers people need to worry about.

“It’s the young ones you need to watch out for. They don’t seem to value life like we do, their own lives, or anyone else who rides with them. The cars we grew up learning to drive in couldn’t go fast enough to kill you whereas kids these days have only ever known fast cars. I learnt in a Humber 80. I think older drivers have learnt to be a lot smarter on the roads and I think that all comes from time in the seat.”

 91-year-old Joan Thompson of Remuera has been driving since she was 15. She considers herself to be as safe as anyone else on the road.

 “Nobody minds driving with me, let me put it like that! I often take people with me, if someone needs a lift I give them one, I may as well. I’m very cautious and always stop at the right places. With all the new roading in Auckland you need to make sure you’re in the right lane but I don’t mind the motorway, it doesn’t bother me. When I think back to what it used to be like I actually think today is much safer – I remember when all the roads in Remuera were loose gravel.”

 She says she has no intention of giving up her VW Golf any time soon.

 "I hate to think what it would be like not to have it in the garage. I’ve had it for 14 years and I use it almost every day. It hasn’t got all the bells and whistles that some cars have but I’ve looked after it and I think it will last me for my life. I use it for socializing, I go shopping, I belong to Probus, I go to lectures, I go to lawn bowls, weather permitting.  And at Christmas I drive to our old bach in Taupo. Last year I had a broken leg and hip but that didn’t stop me. I just got a handicapped sticker for my car for 6 months. It certainly made parking a lot easier.”

In New Zealand, senior drivers are required to renew their licences and undergo a medical check at age 75, 80 and every two years after that.

During your appointment your doctor will discuss your present state of health with you and test your eyesight. They will then recommend whether you are medically fit to drive.

If older drivers have any doubts about their safety on the road Harry Wilson suggests they start by filling out NZTA’s online self-assessment tool.


[1] NZTA and NZ Census statistics

[2] Read more here.


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