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According to the Federal Highway Administration, there are well over 2 million licensed drivers in the United States over 85 years of age, and with the impending “silver tsunami”, that number is expected to grow significantly over the next several years.  Seniors are living longer and are more active than ever before.  This is the first generation in which almost everybody earned a driver’s license during adolescence and has been driving ever since.

Today’s 85 year old driver probably began driving at around the age of 15 or 16, which dates the start of one’s driving career back to 1943-44, at the height of WWII.  In 1943, the Pentagon was completed and became the largest office building in the world, Franklin D. Roosevelt was president and there were only 48 states in the Union.  Gasoline prices rose to 18 cents a gallon, and construction on the country’s first interstate highway would not begin for another 13 years.  It would be another 26 years before seatbelts would start appearing in cars.

In January, 2013, FoxNews reported on Edythe Kirchmaier, a great-grandmother from California, in an article titled “105-year-old California woman relieved to pass driver’s test with flying colors”.  Mrs. Kirchmaier took her driver’s test the day after she turned 105, making her driver’s license valid until 2017.

Just last month, New Zealand’s Bob Edwards turned 105 years old, and is considered to be that country’s oldest driver.  Mr. Edwards says he has been driving for 88 years and has “no plans to get out from behind the wheel”.

In the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)’s Older Driver Five Year Strategic Plan (2012-1017), they estimate that by 2020, there will be more than 40 million licensed drivers 65 and older.


An Evolution of Vehicle Safety Enhancements

Almost like aviation safety, vehicle safety advancements have made almost unbelievable progress over the past half-century.  Many of us remember when cars were not yet equipped with padded dashboards, lapbelts, rounded door handles, hydraulic brakes, automatic transmissions, or emergency brakes.

Most of us remember the addition of new safety features like back-up lamps, hazard flashers, 3-point safety belts, laminated windshields, airbags, smoother dashboards with recessed controls, bumper shocks, disc brakes, a driver’s side airbag, antilock brakes, GPS, collapsible steering columns and heads-up (HUD) displays.

Many of today’s vehicles are adorned with such advancements as adaptive headlamps, back-up sensors and cameras, adaptive cruise control, a third brake light, traction control systems, electronic stability control, electronic brakeforce distribution, cornering brake control, electronic tire pressure monitoring, advanced navigation systems, hydrophobic windows, crumple zones and safety cells, black box recorders, and smart supplemental restraint systems.


Emerging Vehicle Safety Technologies

And now we are entering what I like to call the Paleo-Jetson era.  Purchase a new vehicle today and you may be equipped with such advances as intelligent brake lights (brake lights that communicate with other vehicles), smart windshields (augmented reality), night vision enhancement, automated parking systems, lane departure warning systems, crash notification and avoidance technologies, electronic blind-spot detection, back-over prevention systems, fatigue warning systems, forward collision warning with auto brake, and now…the advent of self-driving cars.


This is All Good, Right?

There is much debate amongst automobile design engineers, psychologists, industry safety researchers, geriatricians and neurologists, et cetera, on how well the processing abilities of older drivers is going to be able to keep up with the cognitive workload being required by these new technologies.

For example, most crash avoidance technologies rely on drivers to take immediate action.  The effectiveness of these systems depends on whether drivers accept the technologies, understand the information from the reporting systems, and respond appropriately.  Often times, in order to be effective and safe, the processing of these new sensory inputs will need to occur in well under a slit-second of time, and that’s quick.


Fighter Pilot Information Overload

For decades, the military has been conducting research on the experience known as ‘fighter pilot information overload’.  This phenomenon occurs when the pilot becomes so inundated with information produced by intelligence gathering technologies within the cockpit that his or her mind loses its ability to properly analyze the incoming data.  Worse still, sometimes that overload of information can become so intense and overwhelming, and in such a short period of time, that the results can almost immediately turn disastrous.

As drivers, are we going to find themselves overwhelmed by the bombardment of new technology commands such as audio warnings, alerts, tones, and visual cues, et cetera?  Are we entering into an era of ‘older driver’ information overload?


Who Buys These Technologically Advanced Vehicles?

In a 2013 study by the University of Michigan’s Traffic Research Institute (UMTRI), researchers concluded that “Adults under 50 have long been the ideal target group for automobile advertisers, but when it comes to buying new vehicles, older consumers may be a marketer’s best bet.  The emphasis on this relatively older age group is further supported by the expected continuation of the greying of the population and the consequent continuation of the increase in the number of older licensed drivers.”

The automobile industry and the engineers and developers behind these new technologies quickly remind us that these new developments are designed to make vehicular travel safer than it has ever been before, particularly for our growing population of older drivers (aka new car customers).


The Real World

As the developer of the “self-assessment program” for older drivers, I have worked with older drivers that will undoubtedly adapt to these new technologies with ease.  They possess the cognitive abilities to handle these emerging technologies without ever missing a beat.  I know of older drivers that will bask in this new era and would even serve the rest of us very well as instructors for this new gadgetry.

I have, however, worked with just as many older drivers that shouldn’t so much as have the AM radio turned on while driving.

I have ridden shotgun with older drivers that did not realize their outside mirrors were adjustable, or that they could unlock their vehicle by simply pushing on one of the key’s little black buttons.  “Amazing!” one older driver told me after I should him how to unlock the car remotely.  There are drivers who do not know how to activate their four-way flashers in case of an emergency, and have always wondered “what that red triangle button was for”.

I once enjoyed the good fortune of riding with an older driver that asked me “what is that funny clicking sound…is that your phone making that noise?”

“No ma’am” I replied, “that’s your left turn signal…it’s been on now for several miles.”  Acknowledging the error, she promptly turned the left turn signal off and was immediately pleased with herself.  Now we were driving down the road with our right turn signal on, and she seemed to no longer notice that “funny clicking sound”.

I have spent time with more than one older driver that has become lost while driving blocks from their home of 50 years.  When that happens, older drivers seemingly fall apart cognitively.  On more than one occasion I have been with a lost, older driver who has found himself as the lead vehicle stopped at a red traffic signal.  In the mounting confusion, they have sat through the entire green cycle because they were so distracted and confused that they could not process that the signal changed from red to green (this despite the sounding horns from the cars driving around us).

Many older drivers purchase vehicles equipped with in-dash navigation systems to help keep them from getting lost, but have no idea how to so much as turn it on.  “They showed me once, but I forget”.  One elderly gentleman explained that he gets lost often, so his adult children purchased a GPS unit for his dashboard.  He then explained “I don’t use it though; it’s too distracting.”

One has to wonder how this same driver would respond to an emergency audio alert being chirped or chimed from the vehicle’s lane departure warning system.

To say the least, interpreting warnings from multiple systems may be confusing or even completely distracting or overwhelming for some older drivers.  For some older drivers, their insurance agent might be well served to actually raise their client’s premiums (just joking) if their new vehicle is equipped with these fancy, electronic safety “distractions”.


A False Sense of Security?

When these hi-tech vehicles are purchased by an older (or younger!) adult, what training will that person receive in the use of these modern-day advancements?  Will the training be unique to the individual’s cognitive and sensory abilities?  To their vision and hearing?  To their flexibility and reaction-times?

Will the new car owner be required to train for x-amount of hours in a simulator?  Will they receive an on-road demonstration by the salesperson?  Or will the new owner simply be told “Be sure to download the video on how to use your car’s new forward collision warning system…with auto brake!”

Are these new technologies going to cause drivers to rely on emerging safety systems so much that they will feel freer to look away from the road, lessening their defensive driving skills?  Will they give an older driver (and their adult children?) a false sense of security that will encourage driving during weather or traffic conditions that they would not normally subject themselves to?


Successful Morphing of Older Drivers and New Vehicle Technologies

In defense of older drivers, earlier this month the Missouri State University released a study titled “Study shows seniors navigate assistive technology with ease”.  Although the study did not specifically refer to driving, the researchers concluded “Those aged 65 and older are accessing and effectively utilizing technology on a daily basis”.  That’s certainly a good start.  It is also gratifying to know that engineers from our most respected and trusted automobile manufacturers are very well aware of this interfacing concern and are working diligently to improve our likelihood of success in the world of new automobile technologies.

In a 2009 report by the National Academy of Engineering, researchers explain “New in-vehicle systems create particular challenges for older drivers. Paradoxically, even though older drivers may find it more difficult to use these devices, they are likely to be the first to encounter them, because innovations are often initially introduced into high-end cars, which are usually bought by more affluent (and usually older) costumers. Thus the more mature driver population is often the first to encounter still immature systems.”

It is important to remember, too, that the American Automobile Association (AAA) has informed us that seniors are outliving their ability to drive safely by an average of 7-10 years, that’s with or without intelligent brake lights.


Managing the Situation

On January 15, 2009, US Airways pilot Chesley Sullenberger successfully landed Flight 1549 in the frigid, wintery waters of the Hudson River, effectively saving the lives of all 155 passengers and crew members onboard.  Since the “Miracle on the Hudson”, Captain Sullenberger wrote the New York Times best-seller Highest Duty, which is a memoir of his life and of the events surrounding Flight 1549.

In the book’s chapter titled Managing the Situation, Captain Sullenberger writes about the application of emerging technologies in the cockpit.  Sullenberger recounts a conversation he once had with Earl Wiener, Ph.D., a former Air Force pilot turned renowned aviation safety expert.  Dr. Wiener explained that he was once asked to speak at a conference on “the role of the pilot in the automated cockpit”, and offered the following:

“Whether you’re flying by hand or using technology to help, you’re ultimately flying the airplane with your mind.  The question is:  How many different levels of technology do you want to place between your brain and the actual control surfaces?”

There appears to be a strong correlation between Dr. Wiener’s assessment of cockpit technology and the recent advances in emerging automobile technologies, and if nothing else, his comments are certainly cause for further consideration.


Proceeding With Caution

Tom Brokaw referred to older American’s as “Our Greatest Generation”, and he was exactly right.  Conceptually, the older drivers this article refers to includes individuals that fought in for us in world wars, they ended racial segregation, strategically maneuvered our country through the Cold War, put American’s on the moon, built the steel industry, and brought us the Golden Age of Television.

Members of the Greatest Generation includes such icons as Mickey Rooney, Bob Hope, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Ross Perot, Jim Nabors, Barbara Walters and Neil Armstrong, and just as importantly…many of our parents or grandparents.  We owe a duty to our older drivers not to leave them behind in the wake of new and advancing technologies.  The adaptation of these new advancements need to involve our older drivers from the very early stages of initial concept, to product development, and lastly to successful training, acceptance, implementation and proper interfacing.

These are very exciting times for new vehicle safety technologies.  The landscape of in-vehicle technologies is changing daily as new components continue to be introduced. These advances, combined with roadway design improvements, the development of advanced traffic management systems, raised awareness and education, and a better understanding of driver factors will all work together to make our highways and communities safer places to live, work and recreate for the next generation.

The meshing of new technologies with current driver skills and abilities must be handled with care for both reasons of safety, and for reasons of taking care of those that have spent their lives laying the ground work so that we could enjoy the development of these new safety technologies in the first place.  We wouldn’t be where we are today without the miraculous achievements of “Our Greatest Generation”.


In addition to being a published author and an expert in older driver safety, Matt Gurwell is also the Founder & CEO of Keeping Us Safe, an international organization that provides practical, real-life solutions to older drivers and their families.    




  1. Gravatar for Yan Ross
    Yan Ross

    First, a disclosure: I've worked with Matt Gurwell for the past 3 years. He is at the forefront of the direct, hands-on support system for older drivers and their families. Readers who "get it" about where the phenomenon of aging drivers is headed will want to learn more about the "Beyond Driving With Dignity" program. Good work, Matt!

  2. Gravatar for John Sanders
    John Sanders

    This is a very thorough and insightful article on the future that older drivers are facing. I think Matt makes some good points on the problem of "overload." Traffic systems can be over whelming at different times for any age person. It will be interesting to see what kind of training or education is given to the buyers of these safety-equipped vehicles.

    Thanks for looking out for ALL drivers, Matt.

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