What do highways full of old people look like? Florida.
- One in five licensed Florida drivers is over age 65.
- In several counties, one of 12 drivers is over the age of 80.
- In tiny Sumter County, 55 percent of licensed drivers are over 65.
Compare that with the rest of the U.S., where about 16 percent of the driving population are senior citizens.
"The demographics are striking," says Sandra Winter of the University of Florida's Institute for Mobility, Activity and Participation.
While aging drivers are an issue throughout the country, as the first wave of Baby Boomers reaches its late 60s, Florida offers a snapshot of the "silver tsunami" to come. Connecticut and West Virginia have similarly large percentages of senior drivers.
Older drivers have different kinds of accidents, and they are more likely to die in them. They present different issues with building roads, and they present different problems for law enforcement and first responders.
In the left lane with their blinkers on
The repercussions of an aging population can be seen on Florida's roads. In 2006, drivers age 65 and older were involved in 17.1 percent of all crashes; by 2010, they were involved in 21.2 percent of crashes, according to the state Department of Transportation.
Older drivers and passengers are much more likely to be injured or killed.
In 2006, older adults accounted for 28.4 percent of all those injured in Florida crashes; by 2010 they represented 31.2 percent of those injured. In addition, they accounted for 19 percent of traffic fatalities in 2006. In 2010, they represented 23.4 percent of fatalities.
But older drivers are not necessarily more prone to accidents. The Highway Loss Data Institute says even the oldest drivers -- those over 85 -- file far fewer collision claims than drivers under the age of 25.
Federal safety data show senior drivers don't speed or drink and drive at nearly the same rates as younger drivers. Instead, they are much more likely to have accidents making left-hand turns or at intersections -- problems Florida has begun to address in a variety of ways.
E-Z reader traffic signals
Seniors tend to have declining skills in judging the position and speed of other vehicles, Winter says. A University of Kentucky study found that the odds a driver will have an accident that involves turning left increase by 8 percent a year after age 65.
Older drivers also can have a hard time processing and making decisions in complex driving environments, Winter says. These situations include multilane roadways with bicyclists and pedestrians present, highways during rush hour, or Florida's torrential downpours.
Among the changes Florida has made:
- Installing signals for left-turns
- Converting intersections to roundabouts
- Changing intersections with two stop signs to four-way stops
- Making pavement markers wider
- Putting reflectors closer together
- Larger lettering on street signs
- Installing signs with the name of the upcoming road before intersections to prevent last-minute lane changes
"A lot of the changes made for older drivers benefit everyone," says Gail Holley, Florida's DOT Safe Mobility for Life program and research manager. "The effects of aging affect all of us at different times," with many of the issues starting to creep up by the age of 50.
While these changes make the decline in skills less dangerous, they only delay the inevitable.
Writing grandma a ticket
While law enforcement officers may pull over older drivers for traffic violations, "a lot of times they don't want to give an elderly person a ticket. It's like writing their grandmother a ticket," says Lt. Donald Fewell, a traffic unit commander for the Lee County Sheriff's Office in southwest Florida.
Yet writing that ticket "might be the thing they need to address their driving behavior," Fewell says.
Many older drivers realize their skills are declining and opt not to drive at night, on interstates, or during peak traffic hours.
But that's not always the case, and family members, law enforcement officers and outside experts have a role to play in getting unsafe drivers off the road, says Fewell.
He sees it firsthand in Lee County, where Fort Myers is located. There, more than 27 percent of licensed drivers are older than 65, and more than 5 percent are older than 80.
"The vehicle is their lifeline," Fewell says. "If they lose ability to drive, they lose their independence." It's incumbent on family members, friends and social services to provide alternate transportation.
While officers may be loath to ticket older drivers, the motorist might need to wind up in traffic court or referred to the state Department of Motor Vehicles so their skills will be re-evaluated.
Fewell tells his officers, if someone is a danger on the road, "the burden is on you to do something about it."