The coming tsunami of elderly drivers is a challenge that automakers, policy makers, insurance companies, healthcare advocates and everyone else has seen coming for decades. But American society remains far from prepared even for mid-decade, when about one in four U.S. drivers will be 65 years of age or older.
Traffic deaths rose in the middle of the last decade thanks in part to the scourge of texting while driving. The figure declined for the last few years due to more automated safety features in cars and, last year, because of the falloff in driving amid Covid-19 lockdowns. But it isn’t hard to imagine fatalities spiking significantly in the next few years as record numbers of Americans enter the years after 65 when drivers involved in crashes, and fatalities, spike significantly.
Families, companies and authorities have tried to stay ahead of the problem by making cars safer, establishing safety monitoring behind the wheel, making driver’s license renewals more challenging — and asking problematic seniors to hang up their car keys. Technologies including fully driverless automobiles promise advances, too, at some point.
But for now, the challenge of coping with the boom in senior drivers, in their needs and in their limitations hasn’t been adequately met. Some experts believe automakers will have to take the lead in making big progress.
“It’s going to have to come from auto manufacturers, with the recognition that seniors are a huge part of their market,” Dustin Boute, director of innovation consulting and the travel and hospitality lead for EPAM Continuum, a consulting firm based in Boston, told me.
Unfortunately, Boutet told a recent EPAM webinar called “The Old Road Test,” “because the older-driver issue as a matter of safety happens only one accident at a time, with only a few people on a single street corner, it does not get the national attention, or in many cases the industry and policy attention, that it should.”
One reason progress has been slow on this issue is the recognition that “driving represents freedom and independence for a lot of these senior drivers,” said Joseph Coughlin, director of the Age Lab at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, another webinar participant. “And as soon as you take that ability away, they’re almost twice as likely to fall into depression and essentially graduate into senior assisted living. So there are definite consequences as soon as seniors stop driving.”
Boutet said that research showed for almost 40 percent of adults, “trying to have the conversation where you take the keys away from a senior family member is the hardest conversation that they’ll have. The next hardest conversation, at 24 percewnt, is actually talking about their last will and final wishes. So conversations about death are actually easier to have than the ones about taking away the keys.”
One way to responsibly delay the day of that “pass-the-peas-and-hand-over-the-keys” conversation at, say, Thanksgiving, is for adult children to actually spend time witwh their parents behind the wheel, Coughlin said.
“One thing we found with older adults is that those who were more likely to push back a little bit on their ability to drive asked, ‘Have you sat in the car with me?’ So all the social-psychology biases we have when we make decisions around health and wealth, decisions on finance and life, also happen on our driven capability. ‘Until you’ve been with me, and can see how I drive and make the emotional connect,’” Coughlin said, offspring of seniors aren’t necessarily in the best position to demand they hand over their keys.
For elderly who continue to drive, car companies to this point haven’t necessarily helped out with new models by loading onto digital touchscreens so many functions in the interior of cars that previously were controlled by analog dials, buttons and switches. “Touchscreens require attention, direct input” and a “high cognitive load,” Boutet noted. “It feels minimalistic, but it also requires a lot more attention to achieve what you’re trying to do.”
A way that automakers and their suppliers could help out with new technology is to maximize the capabilities for automobiles to become “mobile clinics,” Boutet said. “Remote patient monitoring already is exploding. Where that monitoring is happening, and the types of senors and data available, is really going to change the landscape. If someone can measure cognitive or physical decline on a daily basis and can merge that data into a comprehensive care plan,” he told me, “it will positively impact patient outcomes.”
Some sensors in a car, Boutet added, might be applicable only in that setting, such as measurement of eye tracking and focus, or measuring of heart rates during moments of stress such as getting behind the wheel — also, reaction speeds. “These are leading indicators for physical and cognitive decline,” he explained.
But Coughlin said that even Level 5 autonomous driving, in which senior citizens presumably could simply ride to their destination without having to direct the vehicle physically, “hasn’t been thought out in terms of how the user is going to interface this in the context of the larger infrastructure of the system.” For instance, he said, “how do you get your 85-year-old, cognitively impaired mother from her couch into the living room into the car? How do you trust the vehicle to take your mother by herself to where she gets to on teh other end? How do we get out at the other end?”
To “get to the kind of nirvana” required, Boutet said, will “require some level of government regulation to … fit some pieces in place.” In the meantime, he said, how can society “give seniors better abilities while they are [still] on the road. And while they are in control … I do think the answer to that is keeping them, through coaching or some simple technology that can make them better drivers, behind the wheel and in control longer, because I think this has definite public-health implications … We’ve got them engaged in society longer.”
I have broad interests and experience as a journalist, covering the auto business, the consumer-packaged goods industry, entrepreneurship, and others, as well as