Substance Use Significantly Increases Older Drivers’ Risk of Accident, Study Finds

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A new study using nine years of highway traffic data how found that older drivers who engage in substance use have a two to four times greater risk of being responsible for a crash compared to those who do not.

The research revealed that of 87,060 drivers involved in two moving vehicle crashes, more than one-third who were over 70 years old tested positive for substances, despite older drivers generally being less likely to report substance use.

“In general, older drivers are at an elevated risk for being at-fault in a fatal car crash, this is especially the case when they are under the influence of alcohol or drugs,” explains the lead author, Dr Satish Kedia, a professor at the University of Memphis School of Public Health's Division of Social and Behavioral Sciences.

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In 2020, there were almost 48 million licensed drivers in the U.S. aged 65 and older, as reported by the CDC. This is a 68 per cent  rise in comparison to the year 2000. Moreover, approximately 7,500 seniors were killed and almost 200,000 were hurt in accidents in 2020.

“There is no question that driving helps older adults stay mobile, enjoy more activities, and maintain independence.

“But it is really important that this is done within the context of the law, as our research shows just how much aging increases the risk of being at-fault for injury or fatality in a drug or alcohol-related traffic accident,” Kedia added.

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The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's Fatality Analysis Reporting System was studied by the research team from 2010 to 2018 to see how the use of substances (alcohol, cannabinoids, stimulants, narcotics, depressants, and hallucinogens) affect the chance of an elderly driver being the cause of a deadly car accident on U.S. public roads.

In total, 43,530 pairs of vehicles were involved in two-vehicle crashes. 42 per cent  of the drivers involved in these collisions reported substance use; 1,978 of these were adults aged 70 and over, and 1,454 were 80 and older.

For drivers aged 20-69 years, the relative crash involvement ratio was comparatively low; however, it was 1.17 for those aged 70-79 years and more than double (2.56) for those over 80 years old.

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The research disclosed  that regardless of the driver's age, using any type of substance significantly increased the likelihood of being responsible for an accident.

Even when taking into account the driver's sex, the grade of the road, the weather, the lighting, any distractions, and whether or not the driver was speeding at the time of the crash, the regression models showed that older drivers under the influence of substances were twice as likely to be the cause of fatal accidents.

The study highlighted the necessity of creating awareness campaigns to warn older adults about the dangers of driving while impaired.

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