On May 27, 2016, the CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) released a new web resource to help employers and workers adopt practices that keep workers age 55 or older safe on the road. Work-related crashes are twice as deadly for workers age 55 and older compared with younger co-workers. This release coincides with Older Americans Month and aligns with the NIOSH Center for Motor Vehicle Safety’s goal to prevent work-related motor vehicle crashes and resulting injuries.
Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of work-related deaths in the United States. Millions of workers, such as long-haul truck drivers, sales representatives, and home health care staff, drive or ride in a motor vehicle as part of their jobs. As our workforce ages, we need to pay special attention to the needs of older drivers in the workplace.
Data from the U.S. Department of Labor shows that between 1994 and 2014, employment of workers 65 years and older increased by 117% in the U.S. – a trend that is expected to continue. By 2020, it is estimated that 30% of Americans and 25% of all workers will be 55 years and older, and 40 million licensed drivers will be 65 years and older.
Employers and workers share the responsibility to keep older workers safe on the road. The fact sheet, Older Drivers in the Workplace: How Employers and Workers Can Prevent Crashes, provides information on age-related physical and mental changes that may affect workers’ ability to drive safely.
While older drivers are more likely to practice safe driving behaviors, both employers and workers should be aware that it is normal for physical and mental abilities to gradually decline with age — putting them at greater risk of dying if they are in a motor vehicle crash.
Eyesight often worsens with age. Older eyes need more light and more time to adjust when light changes, so it can be hard to see clearly, especially at dawn, dusk, and night. Older drivers may become more sensitive to glare from headlights, street lights, and the sun. Peripheral vision — the ability to see to the side or up and down while looking ahead — often declines as people age, increasing their risk of crashes. Eye diseases such as cataracts, glaucoma, and macular degeneration become more common with age, making it harder for older drivers to read signs and see colors.
Age-related hearing loss can make it harder to hear horns, sirens, and noises from cars, which warn of possible danger.
Several diseases and conditions can affect the ability to drive. Diabetes can make blood sugar levels too high or low, which can lead to drowsiness, dizziness, confusion, loss of consciousness, or seizures. Arthritis can make joints swollen and stiff, limiting movement of the shoulders, hands, head, and neck. This can make it hard to grasp or turn the steering wheel, apply the brake and gas pedals, fasten a seat belt, or look for hazards. Sleep apnea, a disorder in which breathing is briefly and repeatedly interrupted during sleep, can increase the risk of drowsy driving. Parkinson’s disease can cause a person’s arms, hands, and legs to shake. This can affect balance and movement, diminishing a driver’s ability to safely operate motor vehicle controls. Other chronic diseases and the use of prescribed, over-the-counter, and multiple medications may interfere with sleep quality, increasing risk for drowsy driving.
Motor skills, essential for driving safely, can decline with age. Strength is vital for many driving tasks such as pressing down on a brake pedal. Range of motion is important for fastening a seat belt or turning to look for vehicles and objects. Flexibility allows the body and joints to move more freely, making it easier to observe the road from all angles. This can help with many driving tasks, including looking to the sides and rear of the car, steering, and parking. Coordination helps the upper and lower body work together in situations such as simultaneously braking and turning.
Mental abilities, including memory, attention span, judgment, and ability to make decisions and react quickly, are required for driving. These can gradually decline with age, making older drivers feel overwhelmed by signs, signals, pedestrians, and the vehicles around them.
Employers can develop safety and health programs that consider older drivers’ needs, and workers can be proactive in maintaining safe driving skills. NIOSH’s National Center for Productive Aging and Work (NCPAW) explains that the relationship between driving behavior and aging is not a simple one. Research shows that older drivers are more likely than their younger counterparts to adopt safe behaviors such as wearing a seat belt and complying with speed limits. However, if involved in a work-related motor vehicle crash, they have a greater risk of being seriously injured or killed because of the increased vulnerability of the body to traumatic injury that comes with age. It is important for employers to consider accommodating the needs and capacities of older workers through safety policies and training so they may continue contributing to the workforce under the safest conditions possible.
In this age of mobile devices and non-traditional work schedules, a safe driving program should include standard policies and practices that help prevent distracted and drowsy driving, as well as other best practices such as seat belt use. Employers also can use principles of journey management and flexible scheduling that make driving for work safer for all employees. Practices that may particularly benefit older drivers include:
- Planning routes in advance
- Allowing flexible work hours that keep workers off the road at peak congestion times
- Authorizing workers to stop overnight if they are too tired to continue driving
- Providing refresher training that includes safe-driving strategies, changes in road rules, and training in new vehicle safety features that sometimes can be daunting for older drivers
When conducting safety training programs, employers should consider giving a sufficient amount of time to absorb material, allowing for spacing of practice, leveraging older workers’ preexisting knowledge, offering behind-the-wheel training, and using visual elements in training programs. Employers should be open to discussing workers’ concerns related to driving and developing travel plans based on those conversations.
Employers can use the expertise of older workers’ “crystalized” intelligence — their extensive bank of skills, knowledge, and experience accumulated over the course of the lifespan. This accumulated knowledge is a valuable resource that can be leveraged in the form of mentoring programs that could help create and maintain an organizational safety climate that benefits workers of all ages. Older drivers can transfer the knowledge they have accumulated about driving safely in different types of weather, roads, and traffic patterns to less-experienced drivers.
An added benefit of workplace motor vehicle safety programs is the potential to reach beyond the workplace to personal driving practices and those of workers’ families, friends, and communities. For every employee who participates in a motor vehicle safety program, there are a number of other road users who can benefit from their experience.
See the CDC Announcement
See the NIOSH publication: Older Drivers in the Workplace: How Employers and Workers Can Prevent Crashes
See NIOSH’s updated Motor Vehicle Safety Webpage
See the NIOSH Science Blog on older drivers by the Center for Motor Vehicle Safety and the National Center for Productive Aging and Work