Does Age Have an Effect on Distracted Driving?

an old man driver, car accident

While older drivers are not responsible for the majority of motor vehicle accidents that occur, aging is considered a significant risk factor for accidents resulting in serious injuries and fatalities per distance traveled and per number of drivers. It is predicted that there will be a drastic increase in the number of older people in industrialized nations in the future, and this aging population is also expected to be a contributing factor in a subsequent increase in car accidents caused by distracted driving.

How Aging Affects Driving

There has been limited research conducted regarding the effects of aging on driving and inattentive driving, but certain studies have been able to find that distracted driving has a higher impact on older drivers compared to the effects on middle-aged drivers, while it had virtually no effect on younger drivers.

One contradictory study conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in 2006 found that older drivers were less likely to cause inattention-related crashes, wherein distractions such as eating, conversing with passengers, looking at other objects, or writing resulted in accidents. However, the reason these older drivers seemed less likely to cause these accidents could be because many of these individuals use a passenger as a navigating co-pilot, helping them drive. While a co-pilot passenger may be beneficial in many cases for older drivers, however, another study reported that this was only a benefit in certain situations, such as keeping a safe distance from other vehicles. A co-pilot was found to be less helpful regarding the navigation of crossroads, turning, overtaking, and situations concerning the right of way.

Characteristics and Behaviors of Older Drivers

There are two main factors that influence the road safety of older drivers. These include functional limitations and physical vulnerability. Both are contributors to the overall high fatality rate for older people resulting from motor vehicle accidents. An older person’s physical vulnerability can result in more severe injuries, while functional limitations can potentially increase the risk of car accidents.

Another reason that explains the high fatality rate of older drivers appears to be their decreased overall annual mileage. Drivers that travel fewer miles have been found to increase accident rates per mile, compared to drivers who travel more miles, according to a 2009 study by Safetynet.

After carefully evaluating distracted driving, several researchers have argued that selective attention is decreased in older drivers, or in drivers with a pathological condition such as dementia. One of the most important driving skills is the ability to discern important information from irrelevant information in an environment- a skill that’s not as developed in older drivers. In many cases, older drivers may compensate for their lack of selective attention by driving slower, which allows them to more easily process the environment.

Accident Characteristics

Older drivers often find it challenging to process complex traffic conditions and road designs, which is exacerbated when driving on highways and at higher speeds. Additionally, a large number of collisions involving older drivers occurs at intersections, as aging motorists are less capable of paying sufficient attention to all of the vehicle positions when an intersection is busy.

Distracted Driving and Reaction Time

A recent National Technical University of Athens study tried to determine if distracted driving performance was influenced by age. 72 participants from three different age groups were involved, including younger drivers, middle-aged drivers, and older drivers. The study found that older distracted drivers drove more slowly than their younger counterparts, and that reaction time was significantly impacted in aging drivers who were distracted, whereas reaction time was less affected for younger distracted drivers, when using a mobile phone or conversing with a passenger.

While the study found that distracted driving was dangerous for all age groups, older drivers were found to struggle more when it came to distracted driving while using mobile devices or talking to others. Difficulties with processing and maintaining selective attention while driving combined with the other characteristics present in many older drivers make distracted driving particularly dangerous for these individuals.

Because of the increased struggles associated with distracted driving and aging motorists, many auto accidents are found to have been caused by older individuals. Therefore it’s especially important for older drivers to avoid distracted driving as much as possible. Refraining from using mobile devices, conversing with passengers, or engaging in other distracting activities during moments that require their full attention can significantly reduce the risk for older motorists to become involved in a distracted driving crash.