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Study: Cognitive testing for elderly drivers reduces crashes

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Market Trends
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A newly-released study suggests roadways would be safer if all seniors were required to take memory and judgement tests before renewing a driver’s license.

The study looked at the effects of a Japanese mandate introduced in 2017 that requires drivers aged 75 and older to undergo cognitive screening ahead of each license renewal. It found the number of crashes among older drivers decreased 14% after the mandate took effect.

The Journal of the American Geriatrics Society study found that while vehicle accidents decreased, the amount of seniors injured on bicycles or sidewalks rose.

Within the U.S., drivers older than 70 are more likely to get into a crash than middle-aged drivers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2020, about 7,500 seniors died in collisions while nearly 200,000 others were injured.

Stiff joints, poor vision or hearing, and slower reflexes are among the factors that could make seniors less safe behind the wheel, according to the National Institute of Aging.

Japan’s cognitive screening tests drivers for memory and judgment. 

“After the tests, scores are given, and the testee is determined either to ‘have risk of dementia’ or ‘have no risk of dementia’ according to the total score,” the policy says.

“If a person is determined to ‘have risk of dementia’ as a result of the test, the person is contacted by the public safety commission (police), and is required to undergo a special fitness screening or receive a diagnosis from a doctor based on an order to submit a medical certificate. If the person is diagnosed with dementia, the person’s license is revoked or suspended after proceedings such as a hearing.”

To assess the impacts of the mandate, researchers used police data for collisions and injuries among pedestrians and cyclists for those aged 70 and older in Japan. After analyzing reports from July 2012 to December 2019, they discovered a decrease in crashes after the mandate was imposed.

The study noted that elderly drivers are “neither at increased risk of causing collisions nor a significant menace to other road users compared to drivers of other age groups.”

“However, when they cause collisions they tend to make significant operational errors that are rare among younger drivers,” said the study, led by Johns Hopkins University injury epidemiologist Dr. Haruhiko Inada.

“For example, in Japan in 2019, 41 fatal collisions were attributed to mistakenly pressing the accelerator instead of the brake. Of these collisions, 68% were caused by drivers aged 75 years or older, who comprised only 7% of all licensed drivers. In addition, older drivers are prone to medical conditions that increase the risk of collisions and may also affect public perception of older drivers.”

The leading causes of crashes among young adults include inexperience, distracted driving, and driving under the influence, according to the CDC.

Japan isn’t the only country to require brain tests for seniors seeking to renew their licenses. Denmark and Taiwan have similar policies. 

In the U.S., elderly driving laws vary by state although seniors are required to have a periodic vision screening.

Older drivers could especially benefit from advanced driver assistance system (ADAS) features designed to help motorists navigate intersections, according to a study released last June by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). Proper restoration and calibration of these safety components is especially important given the degree of resilience on these functions. This is especially true for seniors who are more likely to suffer serious injuries in a collision.

The study found that left-turn assist, a relatively new feature, and other technologies that are under development could address a third of the crashes that occur with drivers who are at least 70 years old.

The results of the study, called “Safety potential of crash avoidance features, improved headlights, and V2V-enhanced technologies for older drivers,” should “spur efforts to roll these technologies out to consumers as rapidly as possible,” Jessica Cicchino, IIHS vice president of research, said.

The research could be particularly meaningful as older drivers become more numerous on American roads, the institute said.

“The number of older drivers in the U.S. is growing rapidly because Americans are living longer and retaining their licenses later in life. That raises safety concerns, as drivers in their 70s and 80s are at a greater risk of certain types of crashes and more prone to severe injuries and fatalities than younger people,” IIHS said.



Featured image credit: Traffic travels in Tokyo’s Ginza District on Dec. 31, 2016. (Andrea Zangrilli/iStock)

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