What do highways full of old people look like? Florida.
- One in five licensed Florida drivers is over age 65.
- In several counties, one of 12 drivers is over the age of
- In tiny Sumter County, 55 percent of licensed drivers are
Compare that with the rest of the U.S., where about 16 percent
of the driving population are senior citizens.
"The demographics are striking," says Sandra Winter of the
University of Florida's Institute for Mobility, Activity and
While aging drivers are an issue throughout the country, as the
first wave of Baby Boomers reaches its late 60s, Florida offers a
snapshot of the "silver tsunami" to come. Connecticut and West
Virginia have similarly large percentages of senior drivers.
Older drivers have different kinds of accidents, and they are
more likely to die in them. They present different issues with
building roads, and they present different problems for law
enforcement and first responders.
In the left lane with their blinkers on
The repercussions of an aging population can be seen on
Florida's roads. In 2006, drivers age 65 and older were involved in
17.1 percent of all crashes; by 2010, they were involved in 21.2
percent of crashes, according to the state Department of
Older drivers and passengers are much more likely to be injured
In 2006, older adults accounted for 28.4 percent of all those
injured in Florida crashes; by 2010 they represented 31.2 percent
of those injured. In addition, they accounted for 19 percent of
traffic fatalities in 2006. In 2010, they represented 23.4 percent
But older drivers are not necessarily more prone to accidents.
The Highway Loss Data Institute says even the oldest drivers --
those over 85 -- file far fewer collision claims than drivers under
the age of 25.
Federal safety data show senior drivers don't speed or drink and
drive at nearly the same rates as younger drivers. Instead, they
are much more likely to have accidents making left-hand turns or at
intersections -- problems Florida has begun to address in a variety
E-Z reader traffic signals
Seniors tend to have declining skills in judging the position
and speed of other vehicles, Winter says. A University of Kentucky
study found that the odds a driver will have an accident that
involves turning left increase by 8 percent a year after age
Older drivers also can have a hard time processing and making
decisions in complex driving environments, Winter says. These
situations include multilane roadways with bicyclists and
pedestrians present, highways during rush hour, or Florida's
Among the changes Florida has made:
- Installing signals for left-turns
- Converting intersections to roundabouts
- Changing intersections with two stop signs to four-way
- Making pavement markers wider
- Putting reflectors closer together
- Larger lettering on street signs
- Installing signs with the name of the upcoming road before
intersections to prevent last-minute lane changes
"A lot of the changes made for older drivers benefit everyone,"
says Gail Holley, Florida's DOT Safe Mobility for Life program and
research manager. "The effects of aging affect all of us at
different times," with many of the issues starting to creep up by
the age of 50.
While these changes make the decline in skills less dangerous,
they only delay the inevitable.
Writing grandma a ticket
While law enforcement officers may pull over older drivers for
traffic violations, "a lot of times they don't want to give an
elderly person a ticket. It's like writing their grandmother a
ticket," says Lt. Donald Fewell, a traffic unit commander for the
Lee County Sheriff's Office in southwest Florida.
Yet writing that ticket "might be the thing they need to address
their driving behavior," Fewell says.
Many older drivers realize their skills are declining and opt
not to drive at night, on interstates, or during peak traffic
But that's not always the case, and family members, law
enforcement officers and outside experts have a role to play in
getting unsafe drivers off the road, says Fewell.
He sees it firsthand in Lee County, where Fort Myers is located.
There, more than 27 percent of licensed drivers are older than 65,
and more than 5 percent are older than 80.
"The vehicle is their lifeline," Fewell says. "If they lose
ability to drive, they lose their independence." It's incumbent on
family members, friends and social services to provide alternate
While officers may be loath to ticket older drivers, the
motorist might need to wind up in traffic court or referred to the
state Department of Motor Vehicles so their skills will be
Fewell tells his officers, if someone is a danger on the road,
"the burden is on you to do something about it."