Pimp My Buick

Will new technologies make old people safer on the road?

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2009 Lincoln MKS

In the summer of 2003, a retired salesman named George Weller, who was 86 and in poor health, slammed through several road obstructions that were set up around the popular Santa Monica Farmer’s Market. Weller’s Buick hit speeds of up to 60 miles per hour as it careened through the market, crashing into shoppers and stalls. He killed 10 pedestrians, his car coming to a stop only when a body became trapped underneath. Police determined that the carnage stemmed from a simple “misapplication” of the pedals: Weller had stepped on the gas when he’d meant to step on the brakes.

Weller’s crash has become a symbol of the dangers of letting old people get behind the wheel. As people age—and especially as their health declines—their vision becomes impaired, which increases the chances they’ll cause an accident. Aging reduces physical mobility and cognitive functions, slowing people’s reaction time and limiting their capacity to process multiple sources of information simultaneously (for instance, the dashboard display combined with a picture of the road ahead). People of advanced age can also suffer severe mental handicaps that make driving extremely dangerous. In St. Petersburg, Fla., in 2005, a 93-year-old driver with dementia hit a pedestrian and then drove three miles with the body lodged in his windshield before he was alerted by a tollbooth worker that he’d been involved in a crash.

Despite such high-profile cases, road safety researchers have found that today’s old drivers aren’t very risky. Statistics on current road deaths show that people over the age of 65 are only 16 percent more likely to cause accidents than are people aged 25 to 64. Drivers under 25, meanwhile, are the most dangerous people on the road—they’re 188 percent more likely to cause crashes than middle-aged adults.

Even so, carmakers—eyeing a huge market—are now installing a variety of technologies to make it safer for people to keep driving past retirement. Over the next two decades, America’s roads will turn gray: By 2025, more than one-quarter of the nation’s drivers will be 65 or older (elderly people currently comprise about 15 percent of drivers). These older drivers will be able to purchase cars that alert them to possible collisions, beep and yell when drifting from lane to lane, automatically adjust cruise control when they’re following too closely, and apply the brakes when they’re about to crash. But safety researchers are skeptical that smarter cars will make it safer to drive when you’re old. While today’s old drivers pose little risk, tomorrow’s old drivers—in other words, you—seem likely to cause a lot more trouble. The reason? Grandma doesn’t talk and text while driving. She doesn’t play with the GPS navigator, she doesn’t switch DVDs while changing lanes, and she doesn’t apply eyeliner when making a left turn. You do. And you’re not going to quit when you turn 65.

Bryan Reimer, a researcher at MIT’s AgeLab, says that one of the main reasons that old people don’t cause as many crashes as you’d expect is that they “self-regulate” their driving behavior as they age. Earlier this week, I took an online course offered by the AARP that’s meant to help you brush up on the rules of the road. The course, which is taken by 750,000 people every year, features several videos of seniors discussing how they’ve adjusted their driving habits as they’ve gotten older. People say they drive more slowly these days, they choose not to drive at night (old people are more sensitive to glare), they watch road signs more carefully, they make fewer left turns. Older drivers are more prone to serious injuries when they’re in a crash—a healthy 40-year-old can walk away from a crash that would kill an 85-year-old woman with osteoporosis—and research shows that many old people understand that: They drive cautiously because getting behind the wheel can be fatal. But drivers’ self-regulation presents a conundrum for car manufacturers—by making their next generation of cars safer, are they encouraging the next generation of elderly motorists to drive less safely?

Old people in the market for a tricked-out ride could do worse than the 2009 Lincoln MKS, a Ford vehicle that will offer a smart cruise-control system that uses radar to track what’s up ahead. The car sounds warning bells if you get too close to the vehicle in front of you, and if you still don’t let up, the MKS will slow itself down to avoid a collision. Audi, Lexus, and Volvo also offer such cruise-control systems. Another similar technology can be found on many high-end cars—“pre-crash” systems that sound chimes, pump up your brakes, tighten your seat belts, and even adjust the seats in order to minimize the effects of an impending collision. Eero Laansoo, a human-factors engineer at Ford, told me that he foresees cars becoming much more “aware” of obstacles on the road. “The cars will actually start to react to the situations around them,” he said.

But if you’re driving a car that slows down when it detects another vehicle in front of you, you’ve still got to worry about cars to the left and right. AgeLab’s Reimer says it isn’t clear whether the new technology will make you more or less aware of these dangers. Since you no longer have to pay as much attention to what’s in front of you, you could devote more of your attention to your blind spots and peripheral lanes. On the other hand, you could decide to devote more of your attention to your BlackBerry—in which case you’d be worse off than if your car didn’t have smart cruise control.

Reimer doesn’t have any data to say which scenario will play out. But for cultural reasons, he suspects today’s baby boomers will choose their cell phones over safety. “They’re going to self-regulate in a different way,” he says. “They’re going to be more willing to engage in secondary activities that the World War II generation wouldn’t imagine engaging in. The World War II generation doesn’t drive and talk on the phone. They would never consider that. They never did. The boomers have been doing it for years. Do you see them giving up that connectivity?”

Reimer isn’t saying that new safety technologies will make roads more dangerous; they may very well prevent the worst types of crashes, such as the Santa Monica accident. But their potential is limited. This is a well-known paradox in car safety research, something called the “offset hypothesis”—people act more irresponsibly when they’re driving cars they think are safer. Both anti-lock brakes and airbags were expected to reduce the incidence of car accidents. Neither did because people offset the potential gains in safety by driving more aggressively.

For years, car safety researchers have been calling for more frequent testing—or at least mandatory education—of drivers as they age. But for social and political reasons, few states have such requirements. Talk of taking cars away from old people is about as treacherous politically as angling to reduce Medicare or Social Security benefits. The discussion also raises all kinds of difficult public policy questions: If we prohibit old people from driving, will we provide better public transportation for them? Will we have doctors make house calls?

Laansoo imagines that in the very distant future, cars will hook into road sensors and satellites and become so “aware” of their surroundings that they “will take away a lot of the demand from the driver, and there’s going to be an argument that it’s not going to be quite as important for an older driver to have perfect vision or mobility.” But until then, we might be in for some hairy times.

About 40,000 people die on the roads in America each year. As the driving population ages, Reimer says, we probably won’t see a great deal more crashes, but because old people die more easily than young people, we could see more fatalities. That very danger, though, could spark changes in behavior—even distracted boomers may come to realize that staying alive on the road is more important than checking their e-mail.