Safe Driving


People age 50 and older make 85 percent of their local trips by private vehicle. The vast majority of them hold a driver’s license. Over 90 percent of adults age 50–64 drive, as do nearly three-quarters of people age 75 and older. Older road users are overrepresented in both vehicle and pedestrian crash fatalities. This is in large part due to their increased fragility and frailty. A motor vehicle occupant age 65 or older who is in a crash is 50 percent more likely to die than someone under age 65. And an older pedestrian struck by a vehicle is 4.8 percent more likely to die than a younger pedestrian. In recent years, pedestrian deaths have increased for people of all ages. Still, they have disproportionately affected older adults, people of color, and people with low incomes. 

Safe Systems Approach: The Department of Transportation has adopted the Safe System approach for their National Roadway Safety strategy, which aims to eliminate fatal and serious injuries for all road users. This approach anticipates human mistakes and designs a transportation system that can accommodate those mistakes to avoid serious injuries or death. 

Nearly 43,000 people were killed in traffic crashes in the U.S. in 2021, an increase of over 10 percent from 2020. This is the highest number of fatalities since 2005 and the largest annual percentage increase ever. 2020. In 2020, speeding was a contributing factor in 29 percent of all motor vehicle fatalities—nearly the same percentage of fatalities caused by intoxicated drivers. And according to NHTSA, motor vehicle crashes cost Americans $340 billion in 2019.  

Despite these concerning statistics, trends are improving for drivers age 70–79, according to a study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Drivers in this age range in 2020 were less likely to be involved in a fatal crash than drivers age 35–54. Drivers in their 70s also had fewer police-reported crashes per mile traveled than middle-aged drivers. 

States typically have measures in place to identify at-risk or unsafe drivers of all ages. These measures include regular vision testing or self-reporting of medical conditions. Additional testing may be required before they are issued or allowed to renew a driver’s license. All states allow health professionals, law enforcement officials, friends, and family members to refer potentially unsafe drivers to the motor vehicle department. In addition, motor vehicle department personnel in many states are trained to identify individuals who may need further testing. 

Most states and the District of Columbia include specific licensing provisions for older drivers. Provisions include increasing license renewal frequency, requiring in-person renewal or restricting mail and online renewal, requiring medical certification, and imposing additional testing (such as vision, knowledge, or road tests). However, driving ability varies greatly at any given age. It is more appropriate to assess all drivers’ ability to be safe on the road rather than specifically targeting older drivers. 

Policymakers can also promote safe driving through other mechanisms. These include speed management and measures to reduce distracted driving. Speeding vehicles can also deter walking, bicycling, and other alternatives to driving. As a result, the overall livability of a neighborhood is compromised. Officials help manage excessive motor vehicle speed by setting and enforcing appropriate speed limits, including through the use of automatic enforcement mechanisms. These include speed and red-light cameras on high-risk roads. 

There are myriad distractions: using a cell phone, eating and drinking, talking to passengers, grooming, reading maps, using a navigation system, watching a video, changing the radio station, and the like. In-car WiFi and voice-recognition software make driver distraction even more of a concern. 

Although all distractions can compromise safe driving, texting on a smartphone or other device is especially alarming because it involves all three types of distractions. Drivers who use handheld devices are four times more likely to get into crashes serious enough to injure themselves. Using a cell phone while driving, whether handheld or hands-free, delays a driver’s braking reactions. It is similar to having a blood-alcohol concentration at the legal limit of .08 percent. 

There were 3,142 fatalities and an estimated 324,652 additional injuries due to driver distraction in 2020. Distracted driving is a factor in 15 to 30 percent of all vehicular crashes. Experts suspect that these statistics may underestimate the role of distraction in fatal crashes. Putting in place measures to decrease distractions, such as banning texting while driving, helps promote safe driving. Driver surveys show that two-thirds of motorists report using cell phones while driving, and one-eighth of them report texting while driving. 

No federal laws govern distraction in private vehicles using private devices. But a 2009 executive order bans federal employees from texting while driving while in government-issued vehicles or using a government-issued phone. Federal employees also may not text while driving using their personal vehicle and phone if they are using either to conduct government business. National Transportation Safety Board recommended that all states and the District of Columbia ban the nonemergency use of portable electronic devices (other than those designed to support the task of driving) while driving. The Investment Infrastructure and Jobs Act offers incentive grants to states that prohibit text messaging by all drivers and ban cell phone use by teen drivers. 

Many states have responded to the call to ban texting while driving. As of 2021, 24 states, the District of Columbia, and four territories have banned handheld personal electronic use for all drivers, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Most of the remaining states ban texting by drivers. 



At-risk drivers

Policymakers should use effective, evidence-based assessment models to identify at-risk drivers of all ages. They should receive counseling or referrals, and appropriate action should be taken. This includes issuing licenses tailored to the individual based on road test results. Policymakers should adopt policies that promote safe driving. They should put in place automated controls to decrease speeding in high-risk areas and prohibit the use of wireless devices for voice or text communication while driving. 

License renewal: State and local governments should improve public safety by requiring all drivers to renew licenses in person at regular intervals. The licensing agency should: 

  • require assessment of functional impairments, such as reduced vision or cognitive skills; 
  • provide counseling and referrals that enable individuals to seek professional evaluation and remediation for functional impairment; 
  • require that individuals who exhibit functional impairments be given a road test tailored to identify impediments to safe driving; and 
  • take appropriate action, including issuing licenses tailored to the individual, based on road test results. 

Congress and the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration should support the development of standards for driver assessment, education, and rehabilitation certification. 

Denial appeals: State and local governments should create and use appropriate procedures for drivers who want to appeal license denials, suspensions, and revocations. 

Model licensing systems: Federal agencies should cooperate in encouraging states to develop, implement, and evaluate model driver licensing systems. This could include improved driver assessment, individualized licensing options, and uniform medical guidelines for counseling and licensing functionally impaired drivers. 

Public education: Governments should support the expansion of public education programs on safe driving, including programs that encourage self-assessment and self-regulation. They should also increase the number of qualified professionals performing scientifically based driver assessment, rehabilitation, and education. 

Identification of at-risk drivers: Federal and state policymakers should support training for law enforcement personnel that emphasizes identification of at-risk drivers and referral to licensing authorities for further screening and assessment. They should encourage medical professionals to screen and assess at-risk drivers and to directly encourage patients to seek rehabilitation, education, limitations on driving, or other measures to promote driver safety as needed. Medical professionals should have the ability to report voluntarily patients who may pose a threat to the safety of themselves or the public yet ignore the professional’s advice to stop driving. These medical professionals should be immune from liability when they act in good faith.