Take a second look at the obvious

Not only Californians, but everyone in the U.S., is saddened by the bizarre accident in a busy farmers’ market last Wednesday. Witnesses said a car sped down the entire length of the open-air market, knocking down stalls, scattering produce, and hitting people.
When the car stopped, 10 people were dead and dozens were injured. The driver was an 86-year-old man.
Later, a spokesman for the California Highway Patrol said, “He could have been confused, he could have been scared and tried to get away, we just don’t know at this point.”
What a tragedy for everybody. One witness said, “I don’t think I ever will heal from this.”
This grim accident has renewed the debate over older drivers.
In 2001, a total of 42,116 persons lost their lives in motor vehicle crashes. That’s one death every 12 minutes—whether as driver, passenger, pedestrian, or cyclist.
No one wants to be a statistic. So let’s take a look at the facts about the carnage on our highways.
After the tragic market accident, AOL had a very helpful graph titled “Youngest and oldest drivers, the deadliest”—passenger vehicle driver deaths in 2001.
The distribution of fatalities by age forms a ‘U’ curve. This ‘U’ curve indicates that the highest fatalities occur in the youngest and oldest groups—16-19 and 85 up.
The parallels continue: 25-34 compares to 75-84, 35-44 compares to 65-74, with the safest drivers being in the middle age group 45-64.
So, although they have a slightly lower fatality rate than 16- to 19-year-olds, there is some cause to worry about older drivers. But, the statistics don’t tell the whole story.
There are several very important factors that contribute to the high fatality rates of older drivers. One factor is the frailty of the aged. In fact, accident victims over 80 are nearly five times more likely to die then accident victims in the 30-59 age group.
A second factor is that elderly people are less likely to drive on interstates—the safest highways. And more likely to drive on rural highways, where a higher percentage of fatal accidents occur.
Finally, although older people are more likely to buckle-up, they often drive older cars that are not equipped with recent safety additions, such as airbags and side door reinforcements.
John Eberhard, researcher for U.S. National Highway Safety Administration, said the vast majority of older drivers are not a threat to themselves or other people. In fact, drivers 85 or older were involved in less than 1.5 percent of all fatal accidents.
In 2001, 41.9 percent of all fatalities were alcohol-related. More than 10 percent of fatalities involved large trucks and two-thirds of the persons fatally injured weren’t wearing seat belts.
Factors other than age are far more important in understanding the cause of accidents on our highways.
So why is it that a tragic accident like the California market incident suddenly places all older drivers in the line of fire? If the distraught driver had been 45, would all mid-life drivers suddenly be suspect?
Marie Snider is an award-winning health care writer and syndicated columnist. Write her at thisside60@aol.com or visit www.visit-snider.com

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