Image: Older driver © Clerkenwell, the Agency Collection, Getty Images

At 80, Ezra Hauer finds it more difficult to drive at night, so he tries to avoid it. He does not, however, want to give up on driving altogether or to pass a regular battery of tests at the government's request. "There's no reason to single out older drivers for this treatment," says Hauer, who has just made his case for this position in a scientific journal.

Hauer, a professor emeritus in the Department of Civil Engineering at the University of Toronto, has spent 40 years studying roadway design and safety. Earlier this year, he published "In defence of older drivers" in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, contending that statistics used to paint older drivers as menaces to society have been misinterpreted. "It's said that older drivers have a higher risk of fatal crash involvement than any other population, including teenagers," Hauer said in an interview. "Policies are based on this misconception, and I have tried to set the record straight."

According to the statistics presented in Hauer's paper, the only groups of people to have more than 10 crashes for every million miles they drive are people ages 16 to 19 and those 82 and older. People in their 30s, 40s, and 50s tend to have half as many accidents. When you look at fatalities, though, older drivers suffer five, six and seven times as much as their middle-aged counterparts, depending on how you slice the age groups.

Hauer chalks up the higher fatality figures not so much to worse driving but rather to the fact that older people are more likely to die in a crash because they're frailer than the rest of the population. Seniors also tend to do most of their driving close to home, rather than on safer freeways, which skews the number of crashes per mile higher. "Old farts that we are, we also tend to report the accidents more often," Hauer says. "Young bucks tend not to report."

Hauer based his findings on years of data collected on U.S. traffic accidents. Researchers have long used the same figures to show that people in their 70s and 80s tend to have similar driving statistics to reckless teenagers. But Hauer points out that when fatal crashes involving seniors occur, it is usually the senior who dies -- and not the other party. "Unlike younger drivers, older drivers are a danger mainly to themselves," he writes.

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Regulations vary, but older drivers in some states must now pass medical tests, renew more frequently and take other tests to keep their licenses. This irks Hauer. "The government control measures argue that we cannot drive safely because we have cataracts, heart disease and dementia -- there is a big hysteria," he says. "There is a prejudice against older drivers because we take a long time to decide and our reflexes are not what they used to be. That's really beside the point."

Older drivers, like anyone else, simply adjust their driving to their abilities and road conditions, Hauer says. They drive slower, drive more during the daytime and don't drink and drive. "It's the young bucks who have to chase tail and go and get drunk," Hauer says. He adds that when you normalize driving patterns of younger drivers to those of seniors, "Older drivers have a somewhat higher accident rate but not a dramatically higher rate."

The Canadian Medical Association Journal clearly had a concern or two about Hauer's paper. It published a call for "graduated" driver's licenses next to the defense of older drivers. This paper pitches license restrictions as a blissful return to youth in which older drivers can mimic the young by being allowed to drive only during certain parts of the day and at certain speeds. "Just like graduated licenses for young drivers, the principle is to prevent trauma rather than to await a series of incidents before taking any action," the paper says. "The optimal transition time would be debatable, but might be based on a specific age, retirement or other benchmarks."

To this, Hauer replies, "I am not very hopeful that my message will sink in."

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