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Critical older driver errors in a national sample of serious U.S. crashes

Cicchino, Jessica B.; McCartt, Anne T.
Accident Analysis and Prevention
July 2015

Objective: Older drivers are at increased risk of crash involvement per mile traveled. The purpose of this study was to examine older driver errors in serious crashes to determine which errors are most prevalent.
Methods: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s National Motor Vehicle Crash Causation Survey collected in-depth, on-scene data for a nationally representative sample of 5470 U.S. police-reported passenger vehicle crashes during 2005–2007 for which emergency medical services were dispatched. There were 620 crashes involving 647 drivers aged 70 and older, representing 250,504 crash-involved older drivers. The proportion of various critical errors made by drivers aged 70 and older were compared with those made by drivers aged 35–54.
Results: Driver error was the critical reason for 97% of crashes involving older drivers. Among older drivers who made critical errors, the most common were inadequate surveillance (33%) and misjudgment of the length of a gap between vehicles or of another vehicle’s speed, illegal maneuvers, medical events, and daydreaming (6% each). Inadequate surveillance (33% vs. 22%) and gap or speed misjudgment errors (6% vs. 3%) were more prevalent among older drivers than middle-aged drivers. Seventy-one percent of older drivers’ inadequate surveillance errors were due to looking and not seeing another vehicle or failing to see a traffic control rather than failing to look, compared with 40% of inadequate surveillance errors among middle-aged drivers. About two-thirds (66%) of older drivers’ inadequate surveillance errors and 77% of their gap or speed misjudgment errors were made when turning left at intersections. When older drivers traveled off the edge of the road or traveled over the lane line, this was most commonly due to non-performance errors such as medical events (51% and 44%, respectively), whereas middle-aged drivers were involved in these crash types for other reasons. Gap or speed misjudgment errors and inadequate surveillance errors were significantly more prevalent among female older drivers than among female middle-aged drivers, but the prevalence of these errors did not differ significantly between older and middle-aged male drivers. These errors comprised 51% of errors among older female drivers but only 31% among older male drivers.
Conclusions: Efforts to reduce older driver crash involvements should focus on diminishing the likelihood of the most common driver errors. Countermeasures that simplify or remove the need to make left turns across traffic such as roundabouts, protected left turn signals, and diverging diamond intersection designs could decrease the frequency of inadequate surveillance and gap or speed misjudgment errors. In the future, vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communications may also help protect older drivers from these errors.