Older Driver Safety:

Knowledge Sharing Should Help States Prepare for Increase in Older Driver Population

GAO-07-413: Published: Apr 11, 2007. Publicly Released: Apr 11, 2007.

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As people age, their physical, visual, and cognitive abilities may decline, making it more difficult for them to drive safely. Older drivers are also more likely to suffer injuries or die in crashes than drivers in other age groups. These safety issues will increase in significance because older adults represent the fastest-growing U.S. population segment. GAO examined (1) what the federal government has done to promote practices to make roads safer for older drivers and the extent to which states have implemented those practices, (2) the extent to which states assess the fitness of older drivers and what support the federal government has provided, and (3) what initiatives selected states have implemented to improve the safety of older drivers. To conduct this study, GAO surveyed 51 state departments of transportation (DOT), visited six states, and interviewed federal transportation officials.

The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) has recommended practices--such as using larger letters on signs--targeted to making roadways easier for older drivers to navigate. FHWA also provides funding that states may use for projects that address older driver safety. States have, to varying degrees, adopted FHWA's recommended practices. For example, 24 states reported including about half or more of FHWA's practices in state design guides, while the majority of states reported implementing certain FHWA practices in roadway construction, operations, and maintenance activities. States generally do not place high priority on projects that specifically address older driver safety but try to include practices that benefit older drivers in all projects. More than half of the states have implemented licensing requirements for older drivers that are more stringent than requirements for younger drivers, but states' assessment practices are not comprehensive. For example, these practices primarily involve more frequent or in-person renewals and mandatory vision screening but do not generally include assessments of physical and cognitive functions. While requirements for in-person license renewals generally appear to correspond with lower crash rates for drivers over age 85, the validity of other assessment tools is less clear. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is sponsoring research and other initiatives to develop and assist states in implementing more comprehensive driver fitness assessment practices. Five of the six states GAO visited have implemented coordination groups to assemble a broad range of stakeholders to develop strategies and foster efforts to improve older driver safety in areas of strategic planning, education and awareness, licensing and driver fitness assessment, roadway engineering, and data analysis. However, knowledge sharing among states on older driver safety initiatives is limited, and officials said states could benefit from knowledge of other states' initiatives.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: With the American population aging, older driver safety may become a prominent issue for states in the future. While there are steps that states can take to prepare for the anticipated increase in older driver population and simultaneously improve safety for all drivers, state resources are limited, so information on other states? initiatives and federal efforts could assist states in implementing improvements for older driver safety. We recommended that the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), both part of the Department of Transportation, implement a mechanism for states to share information on leading practices for enhancing the safety of older drivers. As of July 2009, both FHWA and NHTSA had updated their websites to include older driver safety references and links to other organizations? information. For example, both websites now have references to articles on older road users, technical reference materials, and research results as well as links to each other?s websites and the National Center on Senior Transportation (NCST) website, which has a clearinghouse for sharing technical information about older road user programs. The FHWA website also has links to state DOT safety offices. In addition, according to NHTSA officials, NHTSA and NCST have brought together officials from six states to learn new techniques, share ideas, and establish plans to meet the needs of older drivers since 2008. NHTSA also dedicates time to discussing older driver safety during region-wide meetings with state highway safety offices and provides training on older drivers to state law enforcement officers. The efforts from both FHWA and NHTSA provide states with information on other states? initiatives and federal efforts, which allows them to quickly obtain information they can use to develop and implement programs to enhance the safety of older drivers in their states.

    Recommendation: To help states prepare for the substantial increase in the number of older drivers in the coming years, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the FHWA and NHTSA Administrators to implement a mechanism that would allow states to share information on leading practices for enhancing the safety of older drivers. This mechanism could also include information on other initiatives and guidance, such as FHWA's research on the effectiveness of road design practices and NHTSA's research on the effectiveness of driver fitness assessment practices.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation


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