While there’s much debate about whether drivers should be required to sit additional tests or even allowed on the roads past a certain age, new research has put an interesting spin on the debate.
Researchers from RMIT University found that 97 per cent of on-road car accidents involving older drivers in Australia and other nearby countries occur at intersections and roundabouts.
The researchers noted that although older drivers had a lower fatality rate in vehicle crashes than teenage drivers (they had a higher fatality rate than other age groups other than teenagers, and the highest injury rate of all adult driver age groups), they were “over-represented” when it came to accidents involving intersections, turning or changing lanes or where the collision happened at an angle.
The scientists said that that was because natural cognitive decline meant older drivers weren’t as good at steering and braking when faced with more complex road designs that required making multiple decisions and movements at once under time pressure. “Older drivers can struggle with the split-second decisions needed for turning, negotiating roundabouts or changing lanes,” lead author Chayn Sun said in the study published in the International Journal of Sustainable Transportation.
The researchers found that while roundabouts were generally safer than regular intersections, they were still difficult to navigate for some older drivers, and they recommended that this be taken considered in road design. For example, they noted that small-diameter roundabouts with little central islands were harder for drivers to navigate than larger ones.
The study analysed 38 drivers aged between 60 and 81, each of whom wore glasses that recorded their eye movements, including what they were focused on as they drove around a circuit with numerous roundabouts. This allowed researchers to analyse each driver’s split-second reactions to road curves, other cars and other obstacles drivers would experience in real-life scenarios.
While the results found some drivers performed at a satisfactory level regardless of their age, the overall trend was described by the researchers as “concerning”.
“Most drivers showed poor visual search strategies in their gaze pattern, meaning they weren’t taking in enough information about the curve to control their steering well,” Sun explained. “This is concerning because it means the drivers were not compensating for their declining abilities by taking more care to judge the turn or other car movements. It’s this type of everyday bad behaviour that can easily lead to accidents.”
The study also found that some drivers took corners too quickly, at unsafe angles and with jerky steering movements. “Older drivers need to be realistic about their abilities to compensate by driving more defensively, changing lanes less frequently and paying more attention at roundabouts and intersections because it may not be as simple as it once was,” Sun recommended.
The researchers also recommended better-tailored driving tests and programs for older drivers so they could improve their skills rather than stop driving altogether. By the year 2030, it is estimated one in four drivers on Aussie roads will be over the age of 65.