Federal Highway Research Institute


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Elderly road users

Due to demographic changes, more and more elderly people are participating in road traffic as car-drivers. Achieving the safe mobility of older people as long as possible and making it better, if possible, is a central social concern, inasmuch as it enables the full participation in social life and increases the quality of life.

The photo shows an elderly woman at the wheel of a car

Losses of performance

Normally, elderly people expect to face loss of performance owing to age and ill-health, but they adapt their behaviour accordingly; i.e. they make up for existing shortcomings.

Loss of performance due to age and ill-health increases the risk of accidents if requirements to adequately make up for this loss are not met. Among other requirements for adequately compensating this loss we have: knowing and accepting one’s deficits, properly assessing one’s driving ability as well as knowing and accepting alternative forms of mobility.

Risk of accidents and driving performance

Considering the absolute figures from the accident statistics, elderly people are far less involved in an accident than all other age groups. The risk of having an accident due to driving performance (casualties per kilometer travelled by year) can be compared to the one of people aged between 25 and 29 years. The risk of getting killed in a road accident due to driving performance is in contrast comparable to the one of those between 21 and 24 years old, but it is significantly lower than the one of those aged between 18 and 20 who constitute an age group that is particularly at risk.

Independently of age, infrequent drivers (below 3,000 kilometers per year) are significantly at higher risk of mileage-related accidents than frequent ones (above 3,000 kilometers per year). Within the category of frequent drivers, senior citizens have the lowest accident risk.

The reasons for a lower driving performance of elderly drivers are notably the change of driving habits, for instance due to retirement or financial reasons, and loss of performance due to age and ill-health.

Causes and consequences of accidents

Managing complex traffic situations is a central problem for many elderly people. Age-related road accidents are: failure to yield right-of-way at crossroads, taking a wrong turn, turning wrongly turning around or driving in and out, failure to signal while changing lanes.

An increased mileage-related risk of injury with lethal consequence is inter alia due to the considerable vulnerability of elderly people.

Measures to improve road safety

The Federal Highway Research Institute (BASt) rejects a compulsory aptitude test for elderly drivers, arguing that as yet, it has not been possible to establish the usefulness of those tests which have already been carried out in many countries. Restrictive measures lead elderly people to increasingly take part in road traffic as bikers or pedestrians and, hence, become less protected than when using a car. This means the risk of an accident is going to increase for many elderly people.

Essential measures for improving the safety of older road users are especially:

  • Targeted advice from general practitioners, for instance.
  • Better identification of potential impairment due to drugs.
  • Reduction of mobility requirements, for example removing barriers, finding simple solutions for traffic planning and management, support through driver assistance systems.

Future strategies to improve the safety of older road users should not be oriented only towards their achievement deficits, but first and foremost towards their individual safety potential. These include compensatory behaviour, experience, safety-related attitudes, enhanced security awareness, ability to learn.