I’ve heard it hundreds of times: “But I only drive locally, in familiar neighborhoods!” That’s how my patients try to convince me that it’s still safe for them to drive. Their family members similarly rationalize, “But Dad only drives three places, the bank, the post office, and the supermarket. He knows the way very well and doesn’t get lost!” People assume that limiting driving to short, local, trips is a good way for older drivers with declining abilities to remain safe behind the wheel. It makes common sense, but it is not correct.

My patients and their families are always surprised to learn (and you might be too) that driving fewer overall miles, generally by sticking to local routes, doesn’t lower an older driver’s risk of having an accident, it raises it. Drivers over sixty-five years old, on average, have higher accident rates than younger drivers, but older drivers who drive more than 3,000 km (just under 1,900 miles) per year have lower accident rates, equivalent to those of middle aged individuals.

What’s going on here? Why isn’t driving fewer miles and keeping to shorter, local roads, safer? Shouldn’t short, familiar routes be easier for forgetful older adults to remember? Of course, but much more goes into safe driving than memory. Navigating local streets demands more of drivers than does highway driving. There’s more to deal with: more signs, more turns to make, traffic lights to obey, more intersections to negotiate, and more parked vehicles, bicyclists, and pedestrians not to hit; in short, more opportunities for error.

Being able to remember the route and recall details on the way, such as speed limit, of course, are important. But it is the ability to take note of, and quickly react to, a complex and rapidly changing landscape that determines safety most. Aging takes a toll on the mental abilities needed to stay vigilant, anticipate the unexpected, properly judge the speed and distance of other vehicles, and make quick decisions about passing, pulling out, and yielding the right of way. This shows in the types of crashes that older drivers most commonly have: left turns across traffic, failure to yield the right of way, failure to stop at a signal, and failure to judge speeds correctly. Intersection crashes account of two fifths of crashes involving senior drivers versus only one fifth of those of younger drivers.

So rationalizing that it’s still safe for an older adult to drive because he or she only drives locally may be just that, a rationalization. Each person’s abilities, fitness, health, and circumstances are different, and obviously there are exceptions. But if an older adult has given up longer distance driving due to worries about safety, then keeping to shorter, local routes may not be any better.


R Robertson and W Vanlaar, “Elderly Drivers: Future Challenges”, Accident Analysis & Prevention 2008; 40: 1982-1986.

J Langford and S Koppel, “Epidemiology of Older Driver Crashes: Identifying Older driver Risk Factors and Exposure Patterns”, Transportation Research 2006; Part F, 9: 309-321

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