WASHINGTON -- Seat belt systems that are easier on fragile shoulders and ribs. Roads signs with bigger letters. These are some ways car companies and highway planners can help older drivers avoid and survive accidents, says an insurance industry group.
As people age, their eyesight often diminishes and reaction time slows, increasing the risk of an accident. When accidents occur, older people are more likely to be seriously injured or die because their bones are not as strong.
''Seniors are more fragile, so when they get injured, they die,'' said Susan Ferguson, author of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's study.
The institute, a nonprofit research organization funded by auto insurers, found that drivers age 70 to 74 who have accidents are twice as likely to die as drivers 30 to 59. When a crash involves a driver 80 or older, the risk of death is about five times as high.
''I think a lot of people think that elderly drivers are a menace to road users, and there is nothing in our data that shows that,'' Ferguson said. ''They are just a menace to themselves because they die more often in crashes.''
At the current rate, one-quarter of all fatal traffic crashes by 2030 will involve drivers 65 and older, the study found. Designing vehicles to take into account the limitations of age and making road signs easier to read can slow that rate, the institute suggested.
The report urges automakers to improve ergonomics for older motorists, install less rigid seat belt systems that will not cause shoulders and ribs to break, and use air bags that inflate with less force.
To study problems that affect older drivers, Ford Motor Co. engineers use a special suit that adds bulk, restricts joint movement, reduces the sense of touch and uses yellow goggles to simulate cataracts.
A safety system determines how close a driver is sitting to the steering wheel, whether front seat occupants are wearing safety belts and the severity of an accident. The system uses the information to control seat belts and air bags to ensure both can accommodate older motorists.
The system was introduced for the 2000 Ford Taurus and Mercury Sable. Ford plans to offer it in all vehicles in a few years.
''We want to protect everybody, but the biggest benefit is for seniors,'' Ford spokeswoman Sara Tatchio said.
Road signs also effect safety.
A 1997 study by Federal Highway Administration found that older drivers have a harder time seeing and understanding signs than younger drivers. The agency recommends simpler designs and colors that contrast sharply with the background.
The Michigan State Police Department has encouraged communities to use larger letters on street signs and to erect signs warning motorists of approaching traffic lights. The department also suggests reducing the number of signs at busy intersections.
In the Detroit suburb of Rochester Hills, crashes have decreased since such changes were made, said Betty Mercer of Michigan's Office of Highway Safety Planning. ''They were able to demonstrate that it not only helped older drivers, it helps all drivers,'' she said.
Despite suggestions that older drivers should have to pass regular driving tests to keep their licenses, Ferguson said tests are not usually effective in predicting who will be involved in a crash.
''We need to understand that a car is your means of your mobility, it is your means of getting around in the world, and for the elderly taking it away is like a prison sentence,'' Ferguson said.
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