High-risk groups: The young and the elderly

High-risk groups: The young and the elderly

The human factor

Apr 2016

Media reports always highlight two risk groups: Young, inexperienced and, often, allegedly irresponsible drivers; and the elderly, overtaxed driver. But how do these stereotypes stack up with reality? Accident statistics can provide some initial insight. It clearly shows that, as a proportion of the population as a whole, 18- to 25-year-olds suffer the most fatalities and injuries, followed by 15- to 18-year-olds, at least in terms of injuries. In contrast, the over-65s is the age group suffering the second-highest number of traffic fatalities.

Taking the over-65s in isolation, a discrepancy can be observed between the number of deaths and the number of injured persons in this age group. The over-65s are much more likely to die in road accidents than you might assume if one looks at just the number of injured persons (including in comparison with other age groups). Elderly people, therefore, are much less likely overall to be involved in an accident, although they are more likely to be killed if they are involved in an accident – that is, they are a bigger danger to themselves than they are to other road users. For young drivers, however, the statistics look very different. Here, the number of young people injured on the roads is roughly equivalent to the number of fatalities.

Closer analysis of the accident statistics for older drivers shows that car drivers aged 64 or over who were involved in an accident were often (66.9%) the main culprits, too. Among the over-75s, this figure was as high as 74.9%.

Voluntary health checkups for elderly road users

Why is it that elderly people are more likely to cause accidents despite the fact that it is precisely older drivers who have more driving experience than young drivers? As we age, many of our sensory, physical and mental abilities start to deteriorate. For example, our reaction speed depends on how fast we can process the relevant information. As we age, it is not the case that the function of one single sensory organ starts to deteriorate; rather, the process of degeneration generally occurs over multiple sensory modalities. The resulting polymodal sensory impairments are associated with significant mental stress and cannot be compensated without assistance, making our surroundings harder to navigate.

These physical changes that occur as we age explain the specific reasons behind accidents caused by elderly road users, which are mostly associated with difficulty in getting one’s bearings. The limitations that older drivers encounter due to their age, however, can be offset by their experience and driving expertise. Accident statistics show that older drivers, as a proportion of the population, are less frequently involved in accidents than younger drivers, which leads to the conclusion that driving experience is a protective factor. Older drivers enjoy a level of expertise that compensates for any age-related limitations.

This knowledge can be applied in practice to matters of road safety. It would be sensible, for example, if older drivers voluntarily underwent health checkups focusing especially on their physical and mental fitness to drive. Older road users should be given the opportunity to take voluntary measures to promote, maintain and regain their mobility, thereby ensuring that they can continue to be safe road users. A Danish study investigated the consequences of an obligatory, periodic health checkup among older drivers. The study was initiated following the introduction of a cognitive performance test for older drivers in Denmark. The data on fatal road accidents before and after this test was introduced was compared.

The study revealed no difference in the number of older drivers involved in accidents either before or after the introduction of the cognitive test, which means that these kind of checkups do not have any effect on the safety of older road users. One figure that increased significantly, however, was the number of unprotected older (but not younger) road users who were killed during the two-year period under observation. The authors interpreted this dramatic finding as follows: Older road users gave up driving and switched to unprotected, significantly less safe modes of transport such as bicycles.

Significant lack of experience among young drivers

The aforementioned figures clearly show that young drivers, compared with older drivers, constitute the bigger and more dangerous risk group on the roads. The reasons for this lie in the behavior and attitudes of young drivers rather than in any physical aspects. Some young drivers are inclined to take risks, leading to excessive speed or other violations of the rules of the road. In addition, however, certain personality traits are associated with a greater risk of accidents among young drivers. A long-term Australian study (Vassallo et al., 2007), for example, reports that high levels of antisocial behavior and aggression and low levels of empathy are potential indicators among young drivers of risky driving behavior and a tendency to break speed limits. The ability to identify early on young people with risk-seeking dispositions could therefore help to reduce their inclination to take risks at the earliest possible stage.

Another factor in the high accident rate among young people is their inexperience, which means that they lack the knowledge and ability to know how to respond in certain situations. This is where driver training can make a key contribution. The fact is that the theoretical and practical driving license test is an extremely important element in the whole training system for beginner drivers: On the one hand, only beginner drivers who are sufficiently proficient to drive a vehicle on the road are licensed; on the other hand, the training content, assessment criteria and test results are important control functions for the organization of driver training and the individual learning processes of beginner drivers.

Traffic perception test for beginner drivers

It is essential that driver licensing procedures keep pace with the ever more complex demands of road traffic and innovations in the field of vehicle technology. But what kind of developments can we expect to see here? For a start, the theoretical driving license test is and must remain a test of knowledge. Above all, it conveys explicit knowledge – for example, of the rules of the road or how to properly observe traffic in different situations.

In the practical component of the driving license test, however, learners must demonstrate that they can flexibly apply their theoretical knowledge when driving a car in real-life traffic. This involves picking up routine behaviors and consolidating these through practice. These routine behaviors relate not only to how the vehicle is operated but also to how traffic is perceived and hazards are avoided. The inability to properly observe traffic and avoid hazards is still one of the biggest causes of accidents among beginner drivers, which is why driver training must focus on the skills necessary to develop this ability.

Technical testing authorities in Germany have done their bit to achieve this ambitious goal by developing a traffic perception test. The recent innovation report “Traffic Perception and Hazard Avoidance – Fundamentals and Implementation Methods in Beginner Driver Training” (TÜV/ DEKRA arge tp 21, 2015) presented key scientific premises and research findings, on the basis of which innovative task formats for traffic perception tests are currently being developed and trialled. These tasks are designed to be performed on a computer and, in the future, will constitute a link between the theoretical and practical components of the driving license test.

Of course, traffic observance skills will still play an important role in an optimized practical driving license test. Unlike the practical driving license test, however, a traffic perception test will allow learners to practice the relevant skills much more systematically and without being exposed to real danger because many of the relevant (virtual) hazard situations can be specifically simulated.