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Keeping Our Eyes on the Road: How an Aging Population Will Get from Here to There

Dr. Byron Thames
Member, AARP Board of Director
The Florida Council on Aging Mobility Challenges Panel in Orlando, FL

August 24, 2005

Good morning. I am Byron Thames, a member of the Board of Directors of AARP. I am a physician and a long-time resident of Orlando. I am also a driver who's young enough to remember the thrill of how it felt to get behind the wheel of a car for the first time. And I'm old enough to notice how much things have changed since then. I'd like to talk about some of those changes.

But first, I want to thank the Florida Council on Aging for inviting me to be part of this panel. I believe the conversation we will have today is vitally important to our car-loving country. And particularly important to all of us here in Florida.

I hope this conference will shed light on those issues that are too often overlooked - safety, mobility, and transportation for Florida's rapidly growing senior population. And I hope that it will serve as a catalyst for positive changes.

Nationally, we're just a few years away from a dramatic demographic shift. The baby boom generation is getting older. The latest predictions say that by the year 2030, one in five Americans will be 65 or older. And at least three-fourths of all members of that group will be licensed drivers.

As bad as traffic is today, it isn't likely to get any better as our population ages. Older people prefer using private vehicles more than any other mode of transportation. They make nearly 90 percent of their trips in a private vehicle, either as a passenger or driver. And they do this even when public transit is affordable and available.

In Florida, the number of drivers over the age of 65 is expected to increase even faster than the age 65 plus population itself. Here in Orlando, with its constant influx of retirees, we can already see a sharp increase in older drivers on our roads. We're becoming more aware that these older drivers must deal with gradual changes in functioning, changes in their reflexes, their ability to make quick decisions, their vision at night. Changes that can have a definite impact on driving.

Because of these changes, many older drivers begin to monitor themselves. Some stop driving at night. Others choose to use only familiar roads during off-peak hours. And, for the most part, older individuals are safe drivers. As a group, they have lower rates of crashes than younger drivers; they have the lowest percentage of crashes involving alcohol and the highest rate of seatbelt use of any age group.

But, even so, Florida, which leads the country in the number of older residents and older drivers, also leads the country in the number of fatal automobile accidents involving drivers over the age of 75.

This increased incidence of fatal crashes can be attributed mostly to increased fragility, which makes people 75 and older more likely to be killed or injured in a crash. But it can also be attributed, in part, to the driving environment - complicated intersections, hard to read signs, badly timed traffic lights.

Along with our causes for concern about the gradual changes in elderly drivers, we also need to pay attention to the gradual changes in those people over 65, 75, and 85 who have given up driving. Because driving cessation may result in losing community mobility.

As a family doctor, I can tell you first hand what happens when seniors lose their independence and are stranded without adequate transportation options. It's not just a matter of a little inconvenience. They become sedentary and isolated, and it sucks the life right out of them - literally and figuratively.

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