Speed and age high on NHTSA’s radar

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It’s been a busy time at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) these last few weeks, not the least that the agency’s chief, David Strickland, resigned from his post in recent days.

Yet even as Strickland stepped down, NHTSA cranked up activity on two fronts – addressing speeding-related highway deaths and the driver behaviors that lead to a “need for speed,” plus a revitalized focused on “older drivers” and the challenges age brings to motor vehicle operation skills.

Neither of these challenges is new to the trucking industry, of course, for speeding and the aging pool of truck drivers are top level concerns – especially as only 17% of the current crop of drivers are 35 years or age or younger. And even though older drivers are typically wiser and safer, recent research amongst motor vehicle operators as a whole indicates they may be at a higher fatality risk on the highway.

Thus it is no wonder NHTSA is now taking a closer look at both of those issues.

First, the agency recently released its latest National Survey of Speeding Attitudes and Behavior in which nearly half of drivers surveyed say speeding is a problem on our nation's roads, though one in five drivers surveyed admitted that they “try to get where I am going as fast as I can." Speeding-related deaths nationwide account for nearly a third of all traffic fatalities each year, taking close to 10,000 lives, NHTSA stressed.

NHTSA's latest survey on the subject of speeding also indicated an interesting mix of perspectives among drivers, with the majority – about four out of five – believing driving at or near the speed limit makes it easier to avoid dangerous situations and reduces the chances of a crash. An overwhelming majority, 91%, agreeing with the statement that "everyone should obey the speed limits because it's the law," with almost half of all drivers, 48%, saying that it was very important that something be done to reduce speeding on U.S. roads.

Yet despite acknowledging all of the safety benefits of speed limits, more than a quarter of those surveyed admitted "speeding is something I do without thinking" and "I enjoy the feeling of driving fast." Further, 1% felt that "driving over the speed limit is not dangerous for skilled drivers."

Of those surveyed, male drivers admitted to speeding more compared to females based on responses to behavior questions. Also, drivers with the least experience behind the wheel, 16 to 20 years old, admitted to speeding more frequently than any other age group.

More than one in 10, or 11%, of drivers aged 16 to 20 reported at least one speeding-related crash in the past five years, compared to 4% for the population as a whole. The percentage of drivers in speeding-related crashes in this age group is greater than in any other age group, even though these young drivers may not have been driving for all of the past five years.

Yet the rapid increase of “older drivers” on U.S. roadways is generating concern at NHTSA as well; to the point where a focus on such “aging motorists” is taking a prominent position within the agency’s new 5-year strategic plan.

Since 2003, NHTSA noted, the population of older adults – defined as age 65 and older – has increased by 20% and the number of licensed older drivers increased by 21%, to 35 million licensed older drivers in 2012.

In 2012, according to NHTSA's latest issue of Safety in Numbers, 5,560 people over the age of 65 died, and 214,000 were injured in motor vehicle crashes. Those figures represent a 3% increase in the number of fatalities and a 16% increase in the number of injuries from the previous year, the agency pointed out. The data also show that older adults are at greater risk of dying or sustaining serious injuries, even in low-severity crashes.

As a result, NHTSA is focusing on some key areas that it believes will help alleviate issues with older drivers.

The first revolves around vehicle-to-vehicle communications, collision avoidance and crashworthiness systems; technologies that could help reduce the risk of death or injury to older occupants in the event of a crash.

NHTSA said that while crash avoidance technologies will benefit all drivers, they may be of special assistance to older drivers, while certain crashworthiness improvements could help address the special vulnerabilities of older occupants. The agency added that it’s also considering upgrades to its New Car Assessment Program, including a new "Silver" rating system for older occupants.

NHTSA added that it is also refining its data collection systems and will continue to evaluate crash rates, real-world injuries, as well as physical, cognitive and perceptual changes associated with driver behaviors. In addition, the agency said it plans to conduct clinical and naturalistic driving studies to better understand the effects of age-related medical conditions, including dementia.

Finally, while recognizing that age alone is not a determining factor for safe driving, NHTSA believes a focus on “functional changes” in older drivers, especially vision, strength, flexibility and cognition, will be critical – which is why it’s developed Older Driver Highway Safety Program guidelines.

How much of all this affects the truck driver population is anyone’s guess. But it’s a fair bet that as the safety focus on all older drivers increases, and with trucking employing a good deal of “older drivers,” it wouldn’t surprise me to see some new age-related guidelines for truck drivers get formulated soon.

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