Friday, July 14, 2017

Flawless Driving

Dear George,
I noticed recently that my driver’s license was set to expire on my upcoming eightieth birthday.  I was nervous about renewing it because I fantasized that they might put me through a more stringent test than usual.  That wasn’t the case though.  The only hitch was that I swear the clerk showed me Chinese hieroglyphics in my vision exam.  When I drew a blank, she told me to try  again.  I wiped my eyes, and I passed the second time around.  With my new license, I’m all set for another four years, at the end of which I plan to be driving under the auspices of a new president. I’ll just try to stick it out till then.

I’ve been uneasy about driving ever since friends told us that they are banned from renting a car in Great Britain because they are over seventy.  That came as a shock.  I think of the British as much more sensible than Americans, and, if they regard seventy plus as too hazardous to rent a car, they must know something.  To investigate the matter, I did a Google search and ran across a huge AAA-sponsored research study of driver age as it’s related to all police-reported traffic accidents in the U.S. in 1995-96, 2001-2, and 2008-9.*  I’ve summarized some of the data for 2008-9 in the table below.  The table compares age groups of drivers for total number of crashes in 2008-9 (NCrash), the rate of crashes per 10,000 drivers, and death rates per 10,000 drivers in each age group.     

TABLE: Traffic accidents by age group (2008-9)

                 Rate.  Death
               Per 10K  Rate
Age     NCrash drivers Per 10K
16-19   1.8M   1737    2.62
20-29   2.4M   1309    2.40
30-39   3.3M    452    0.70
40-49   1.7M    399    0.64
50-59   1.2M    314    0.60
60-69   0.6M    252    0.62
70-79   0.3M    487    2.79
80+     0.1M    519    3.29
The first column (NCrash) shows that younger drivers are involved in a far greater number of crashes than are older drivers.  People in their thirties account for the most total crashes (about 3.3 million), while people in their eighties have the lowest total (about 100,000).  Overall, drivers in their eighties accounted for about 1% of all U.S. traffic accidents in 2008-9.  This, of course, is somewhat misleading since drivers in their 80s are fewer in number and drive fewer miles.  The next column (Rate per 10K) shows the rate of accidents by age group per 10,000 drivers.  Teenage drivers and drivers in their twenties had much higher rates than all of the other age groups.  About one in six teenage drivers had an accident in 2008-9, compared to about one in 20 drivers in their eighties.  Drivers in their seventies and eighties were most similar to drivers in their thirties.  The last column shows higher death rates (per 10,000 drivers) for those in their seventies and eighties.  This isn’t a matter of more accidents, but rather a decreased likelihood of surviving one’s injuries in the oldest age groups.  About three out of every 10,000 drivers in their eighties died in a car crash in 2008-9 — not terrible odds.   

The data clearly contradict my stereotypic fantasy that older drivers risk their lives every time they get behind the wheel.  Even so, I find myself more conscious of safety issues on the road than I was a few decades ago.  I’ve dealt with this recently by saying to myself when I set out to drive somewhere, “Time for flawless driving.”  That has a remarkable effect.  Just saying “flawless driving” to myself every now and then alters my mental state and makes for heightened awareness of the road and conscious attention to what I’m doing.  I’m not only more aware of stuff, but I adhere more carefully to various safety rules when I have “flawless driving” on my mind.  These are rules like: 

  • Keep your eyes on the road.  Don’t be distracted by pretty girls, llamas, or Burma Shave road signs.
  • Keep track of cars behind you and at your sides as well as in front of you.
  • Drive defensively.  Assume other drivers are texting or are heroin addicts. 
  • Allow plenty of time.  There’s usually no reason to be in a rush. 
  • If changing lanes, put your turn signal on and move over gradually. 
  • Stop at the white line at traffic lights — not in the pedestrian crossing. 
  • Pay attention to your spouse when they scream at you.   

The study I mentioned above indicates that about one senior driver (80+) dies in a car crash for every 12.5 million miles driven.  That’s a lot of miles.  I have almost the entire 12.5 million miles to go this year before I reach that statistic.  By staying mentally attuned to “flawless driving,” I would say I have at least 25 million miles to go before I’m done for.  I can live with that.

*SOURCE:, “Motor Vehicle Crashes, Injuries, and Deaths in Relation to Driver Age: United States, 1995-2010”

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