Get Those Driver-less Cars come the Baby Boomers

The Baby Boomers have been a huge wave since the day they were born, somewhere between 1946 and 1964. According to U.S. Census statistics, there are now about 76.4 million Boomers, covering a current age span from 51 to 69. That number represents one-quarter of the total U.S. population.

Those at the older end of that age range may not know they are about to join another group – one known as “elderly drivers.” Organizations and researchers that focus on the habits and the crash rates of “elderly drivers” usually define them as 70 and above. Really? They put 70-year-old drivers in the same category as drivers in their late 80s and 90s??

It is usually the 80-somethings and 90-somethings who make the headlines. As with the 94-year-old man most recently in Sacramento, California- who raced his car at 40 miles per hour through a Quick Quack car wash and hit a wall at the opposite end. It is believed he hit the accelerator instead of the brake. Luckily, no one was hurt.

Other incidents haven’t had such lucky outcomes. Take, for instance, the 88-year-old man in Pittsburg last November who was attempting to park his minivan, hit the accelerator and killed a woman. This man, by the way, has Alzeimer’s and his granddaughter said she thinks he probably won’t even remember what happened. In La Jolla, California, last October, a 91-year-old woman backed her car into a woman and killed her. In 2012, a 100-year-old driver lost control of his car and hit 11 people, including 9 children. All these example raise the question – why were their families letting them drive?  More on that later.

These sensational accidents made the headlines, but overall research shows that drivers 60 and older (so that figure included a decade of youngsters) kill fewer pedestrians, bicyclists, motorcyclists, and occupants of other vehicles than people ages 30-59 do.

According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, research has pointed up some other interesting facts about older drivers:

They’re more likely to be involved in certain types of accidents – angle crashes, overtaking or merging and intersection crashes. The most common error is the failure to yield. But here, there’s an age distinction. Drivers 70-79 tend to see the other car, but misjudge whether they have time enough to proceed. Drivers 80 and older may not see the other car.

Older drivers are more likely to be seriously hurt if they’re involved in an accident. It’s called increased “fragility.” The increase in fragility starts around age 60 and builds.

The crash rate for older drivers may be somewhat decreased because many older people begin to self-limit – for example, they stop driving at night or they only drive short distances.

The most common age-related changes that cause older drivers trouble are vision, memory, mobility, and medications.

Considering that the number of older drivers is increasing – people are living longer and driving longer and here come the Baby Boomers -- some people are concerned. Can auto technology make up for some senior driving difficulties?

Tests have shown that side air bags with head and torso protection help with the fragility factor, reducing the severity of injury. Electronic stability control helps all drivers, whether young or old.

Some other crash avoidance technologies show promise. Front crash prevention systems, especially those with autonomous breaks might help with reaction time or with mobility issues. Adaptive headlights help all drivers see better on dark curved roads because the beam pivots in the direction the car is traveling.

But by the time we have the Boomer wave adding drivers on the road who are “70 and older,” we better have those driverless cars ready. Under development are “pre-safe” systems that will sound alarms, slow the engine, apply the brakes and get the airbags ready to deploy – all before the driver would have time to slam on the brakes.  Self-parking cars are already a reality.

Google’s “Chauffeur System,” uses a “lidiar” (which stands for light detection and ranging), a regular radar, a camera and GPS. Preloaded maps tell the system where stationary objects (stop signs, light poles, etc.) are located and the lidiar locates moving objects, like people and other vehicles. Google’s fleet of cars has driven more than half a million miles without an accident.

Sounds good to me. Then maybe we can take naps while we’re “driving.” I just hope they make that technology easier to use than my television remote!

A note about families helping their eldest to stop driving:

We tend not to think about how hard it might be to give up the freedom that comes with driving our own car, unless we have gone through it – or are going through it – with someone in our family.

Here’s how it happened with my mother. As she approached her mid-80s, she was driving a little silver Volkswagan beetle. And, since she was in good shape and had an active social life, she was zipping all around town. She’d been a good driver all her life and had probably never had even a small accident. Then she started having a series of little fender-benders. This, paired with the fact that she also seemed to be having some slight memory problems, concerned us, and we were determined that she wouldn’t tempt fate long enough to hurt herself or someone else. We started to say to each other, “How are we going to do this?”

On her 86th birthday, I took her to have her driver’s license renewed. The renewal required a driving test and I had mixed emotions about it. If her license wasn’t renewed, our problems were over. But I hated to have her “fail” the test on her birthday. She passed.

Later that very day, she had another minor accident. According to her, a “crazy driver” pulled right in front of her and she didn’t stop in time. My husband had her little silver bug towed off to be repaired. The next day, she and I went out to lunch and had a nice talk. I agreed that drivers are crazy these days. I suggested that since she had passed her test and could hold her head high, why didn’t SHE make the decision to stop driving. With a little more discussion, she said ok. The little silver Beetle never came back.

I thought we had been incredibly lucky to get through this milestone so calmly and agreeably. That is until sometime later – and for the rest of her life – when the topic of driving or cars came up, she would say, with some visible irritation “I had a little silver Volkswagen…until my son-in-law TOOK IT AWAY.” He was the fall guy for that one – but at least she was safe.