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Older motorists ‘generally very safe drivers,’ specialists say

Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe

Police and officials were at the scene of a crash that killed three people and injured others in Billerica on Wednesday.

By Felice J. Freyer Globe Staff 

The driver who plowed a Jeep into a crowded auto auction Wednesday in Billerica was reported to be his 70s. But it’s unclear whether age was a factor in what appeared to be an accident — and specialists say that, in general, older drivers tend to be safer than younger ones.

“There’s not a great correlation between age and how well you drive,” said Elizabeth Dugan, a gerontology professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston whose research focuses on older driver safety.

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People can be impaired by chronic illness, but chronological age is no predictor of when those illnesses occur, Dugan said. Some 50-year-olds are in worse health than some 80-year-olds. The driver in Wednesday’s accident, which claimed three lives, was an employee of the Lynnway Auto Auction, authorities said.

“In many ways, older drivers are among the safest,” Dugan said. “Younger operators don’t have the experience and make impulsive or poor decisions.”

Mary Maguire, director of public and legislative affairs for AAA Northeast, said older drivers are “generally very safe drivers” — up to age 85. After that age, drivers are more frail, more likely to be involved in accidents than people in their 60s and 70s, and more likely to die if they are in a crash.

Although older drivers might have worsening vision and slowed reaction times, Maguire said, they typically compensate for that by driving more slowly, avoiding nighttime and rush-hour driving, and mapping routes to limit left turns.

“They’re conscious of their limitations, and they take steps to ensure their safety,” Maguire said.

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For example, in 2012, just over 2 percent of all crashes in Massachusetts involved 20-year-old drivers, but 75-year-olds were responsible for only one-third of 1 percent of crashes that year. The lower rate among older drivers partially reflects that they tend to drive fewer miles.

In 2010, after a series of highly publicized accidents by elderly drivers, Massachusetts passed the Safe Driving Law. The law stopped short of mandating driving tests at a certain age, but it did require people older than 75 to come to the state Registry of Motor Vehicles in person to renew a license and take a vision test.

The law also protects police officers and physicians from lawsuits if they report a suspected impaired driver to the registry. The regulations defining the type of physical or mental impairments that prevent people from driving safely are not based on age but on the nature of the impairment.


Felice J Freyer can be reached at felice.freyer@globe.com.