The Amazing Racer -- Safe Driving Possible Even at Age 90

The Amazing Racer -- Safe Driving Possible Even at Age 90

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Douglas Sabiston, shown above at age 90, still takes the track at California’s Infineon Raceway. Photo: Robert Rogers

With one foot on the brake and one foot revving the engine of his 1964 Plymouth Fury, Douglas “The Professor” Sabiston keeps his eyes fixed on the orange light that will flash once, twice, three times, before it turns green.

Suddenly his car rockets past the starting line, touching perhaps 115 mph on the quarter-mile track.

“Reaction time is key,” he said. “If my reaction time is fast and your reaction time is slow, I’ve gotcha.”

Sabiston knows a lot about time -- he’s 90. In the quarter-century he’s been racing street-legal cars at the Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, Calif., he’s relied on his experience to win dozens of trophies. Now that the new season has started, he’s again planning to give his middle-aged competitors -- he calls them “kids” -- a run for their money.

“Too Old to Drive” – at 40?

Many people find a nonagenarian driver a terrifying prospect. In the minds of most Americans, the older people are, the closer they become to being “too old to drive.”

Age bias has been around almost as long as the automobile. In the 1930s, a researcher named H. R. DeSilva wrote in Scientific Monthly about what he saw as a growing problem on American roadways. He proposed that older drivers should be given “objective facts about their failing abilities and how to offset them.”

In his study, DeSilva identified an older driver as anyone over the age of 40. Few would think that today.

Traffic safety data shows that stereotypes about what it means to be “old” often turn out to be wrong.

Statistics show we're most dangerous behind the wheel as teenagers, and safest in our working years. The rate of fatal crashes begins to rise again after 65. But the crash risk for gray drivers is trending down, not up, even as 78 million boomers start drifting into the age range for Medicare and early-bird specials.

Getting Better All the Time – Even After 80

In the early 1990s, traffic safety researchers took a look at trends in older-driver travel. Seeing the “gray tsunami” on the horizon, many anticipated a rise in traffic accidents among older drivers. Then, in 2010, researcher Ann McCartt and her colleagues at the nonprofit Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) looked at more than a decade of crash statistics and crunched the numbers.

What they discovered surprised even them. From 1997 to 2008, the rate of fatal crashes dropped more for older drivers than for middle-aged ones – and the oldest older drivers (those over 80) showed an unprecedented 47 percent decrease in crash risk.

“People are fascinated by the results of the study,” McCartt said. “It’s completely counterintuitive.”

It’s long been known that as a group, older drivers are somewhat riskier on the road than their middle-aged counterparts. Their reflexes are slower. They don’t see or hear as well as they used to. So the combination of an increase in the sheer number of older people and a rise in 70-, 80- and 90-somethings holding onto their licenses, would lead most to expect a rise in crash deaths.

The deaths did rise, but not as much as many expected. According to a 2007 study by the RAND Institute, people 65 and older are only 16 percent more apt to cause a fatal accident than people aged 25-64. Teenagers, on the other hand, are 188 percent likelier to cause an accident than middle-aged drivers.

“We don't have good explanations yet for this,” McCartt conceded. But she and her colleagues have begun searching for answers.

They were able to rule out many of the improvements in traffic safety, such as safer cars, better emergency services and safer roadways, because they affect younger and older drivers equally. But some things have disproportionately helped the older set.

The New Old

Put simply, getting older isn’t what it used to be. The 40-year-old “senior driver” of DeSilva’s 1938 study now looks a lot more like Doug Sabiston – fit, sharp and licensed to drive.

On the whole, we’re staying healthier longer. And for seniors behind the wheel, better health is not only key to avoiding accidents, its essential to surviving them.

Older drivers are also logging more miles, and it’s long been understood that more time behind the wheel leads to lower crash rates (for drivers of any age).

Another possible answer is that older drivers are simply more aware of how aging affects their ability to drive safely. In recent years, insurance companies have begun to publish self-assessment tools to help older drivers and their families assess when it’s time to hang up the keys. And driving-refresher programs, such as the one offered by AARP, are well attended.

McCartt suggests all this may be contributing to an increase in self-regulation, and thus a drop in accident rates. But to find out for sure, she and her colleagues at IIHS are busy analyzing data from a new travel pattern survey in the hope that it will help them understand how older drivers strategically limit their driving as their faculties diminish.

Even Sabiston has begun to change his driving habits.

“I don’t see as well as I used to and I don’t drive at night so much anymore,” he said. But he insisted it hasn’t affected his performance at the raceway. “It’s only a quarter mile,” Sabiston noted. “You don’t need to see so much for that.”

Shaleece Haas wrote this article for under the MetLife Foundation Fellowship in Aging, in conjunction with New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America.