Honorable Deborah Hersman, NTSB Board Member

Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman
"Keeping the Elderly Moving - Safely"
Remarks at ITS World Congress
Orlando, Florida October 17, 2011
(As prepared for delivery)


Thank you, Kathleen (Marvaso), for that warm introduction. It's great to be here today to talk about improving safety for aging drivers.

We learned so much at NTSB's forum on Safety, Mobility, and Aging Drivers last year.  We heard from many experts represented here today, including research organizations, car manufacturers, NHTSA, and MIT AgeLab's Joseph Coughlin.

Here's what we know, aging drivers are a growing segment of population. Further, the elderly are not concentrated in transportation centers.  More than three-fourths of older people live in suburban or rural areas where public transportation is limited. How many of your parents are in retirement communities — outside of town or on golf courses?

We found that even in urban areas, mass transit does not meet the needs of older American and their use of transit is negligible. 

Aging drivers are not a safety risk.  They do not represent a safety risk until they get very old. But one thing that our panelists were united on was that Alzheimer's and dementia do represent a safety risk.

Did you know: 
… that older women give up driving before they need to?
… that older drivers have far fewer accidents than teens?
… and, that older drivers should be behind the wheel at least 3,000 miles a year to maintain proficiency?  One trip a week to church or to get groceries is not enough.

Once in a crash, the older adult is much more likely to be injured or die from injuries they sustain because their bodies are more fragile. As we age, our bodies change both in geometry and in material properties. For example, as we age our rib cages change. Ribs become more perpendicular relative to the spine in the older adult.  In automobile accidents, most injuries to older adults are rib fractures.

Here's a two-pronged approach the ITS community can use to help older drivers:  prevention and mitigation.

First, prevention. This includes using safety technology to prevent crashes. It's important to engage a user-centered design philosophy to incorporate safety technology in vehicles. For example, dashboard electronics can be a distraction because attention-switching capabilities decrease with age. And, technology must address the performance limitations of aging. As Joe (Coughlin) will probably touch on, we've learned so much from AGNES (Age Gain Now Empathy System) about reduced neck movement and flexibility and about slower reaction time. 

Technology also needs to address vision since some of us lose the ability to see contrast as we age. However, cataract surgery is making a tremendous difference in improving vision.

Second, mitigation. We can reduce fatalities and mitigate injuries through improved occupant protection. There's a video from the Ford Motor Company that shows inflatable restraints and illustrates their benefits.  What we have learned about thoracic injuries is important because inflatable restraints allow the crash forces to be spread across a wider area. This technology holds promise for not just back-seat occupants who don't have the benefit of airbags, but for older occupants in the front seat who are more susceptible to seat belt related injuries.

Since older adults are typically in lower-speed crashes, they likely won't need the full force of an airbag. As we've seen with modern dual-stage airbags, reducing the energy of the airbag system in these lower-speed crashes cuts downs on injuries while still providing protection.

In the future, our cars may know our age, the condition of our bodies, and how we use the vehicle. Future cars will be able to provide customized crash protection for each driver.

Here's another approach that is becoming more of a reality: the self-driving car. You may remember George Jetson. He had an automated flying car in the early 1960s. When the TV series started, he was 40 years old. Today, George would be 89 and with the performance limitations of aging, we would probably be here at ITS talking about older fliers and automation, instead of older drivers and technology.

The Jetsons was set in 2062, but here in the early 21st century there is progress on a flying car. I saw one — the Terrafugia Transition — at an air show this summer. But, here's what may be a better solution for our aging drivers — a self-driving car, like the Google car.

I am extremely impressed with what the team at Google has accomplished. For one, with 360-degree perception the car sees more than any driver. Better still, the automated algorithmic driver never gets sleepy, distracted, or drunk, which we at the Safety Board just love. I rode in the car and as we left the Google campus I saw how it negotiated a stop sign with pedestrians crossing the street, merged into traffic at highway speed and how, when necessary, it alerted the human driver to take control of the vehicle.

The ITS community has a unique opportunity to think about safety from George Jetson's 89-year-old perspective.  When you improve safety for an octogenarian, that means improving safety for everyone. That rising tide of safety will make a huge dent in saving lives in the most essential and most fatal form of transportation.

I urge you to consider adding a focus for older drivers to the ITS agenda.