Road Management & Engineering Journal
Road Management & Engineering Journal
November 1, 1998
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Speaking Up for Octogenarian Drivers

  (The following article is reproduced with permission from the website of The Traffic Safety Village, PDE Publications, Inc. of Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Click here to visit The Traffic Safety Village website at

This article is based on a five-minute talk given at a preliminary hearing for the White House Mini-Conference on Mobility and Transportation of the Elderly, in the 1994 Symposium of the Potomac Chapter of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society on "Special Human Needs in Transportation Systems," September 16, 1994, at the Marriott at Metro Center, Washington, D.C. by H. McIlvaine Parsons.

Dr Parsons is manager of the Center for Human Factors Research at the Human Resources Research organization (HumRRO) based in Alexandria, Virginia.

This past summer, a fellow octogenarian I was visiting in Martha's Vineyard showed me his letter that a Florida newspaper published last December. He wrote that he had given up driving "after brushes with 1) a mailbox, 2) a ditch and 3) a tree." In addition, there had been comments by his grandchildren admonishing him to "concentrate" more, and there'd been other "minor happenings" and a few "close calls here and there."

But now, my friend added, "the changes in my life, my lifestyle, my esprit, have been devastating. No longer am I able to get in the old car, go where I want to go, when I want to go, or do what I want to do. I am now dependent on family, friends and anyone else who will give me a lift . . . planned well in advance" for "necessary errands, civic activities and omnipresent medical appointments."

Two weeks later his son called to tell me his father, a robust former captain of a Yale football team, had just died while operating his word processor. That sad event inspired this article. My friend's letter illustrated well the kind of self-regulation by older drivers that is being wisely pursued through a current project of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). But the letter also suggested some other possibilities. For example, although older drivers have been queried about their needs (Eberhard, 1994), they may be able [to] offer much more in terms of insight into older driver problems and solutions. In addition to providing first-hand information, they may be able to tell us a lot about how peer and other influences affect the self-regulation of older drivers.

Beyond methods of inducing self-regulation, research might investigate what happens to older drivers after they give up driving--including, I should emphasize, those who might wrongly lose their licenses. According to gerontological research, abrupt changes in living circumstances may not always be conducive to life extension among older people.

If, as some research suggests, the ability to make choices is behaviorally and cognitively beneficial the removal of this opportunity may be the opposite. And as older person's activities diminish, so do the benefits of sensory stimulation. Especially disadvantageous may be the reductions in the lifelong feedback connections that we experience between such stimulation and the behavior that brings it about or results from it, or both (Parsons, 1984).

Driving a vehicle in varied environments epitomizes such interaction of "doing" and "sensing." The contingency relationships between these (which presumably are neurally embedded) are inadequately emphasized by psychologists and gerontologists, so my perspective may seem novel. But it is in line with the general notion that for a person to continue to age successfully, those aspects of living that have been present in successful aging should be maintained.

I should note that, although it might make a nice illustration of the process described above, my friend's heart attack may not have been hastened by the changes he reported; he'd had earlier cardiovascular problems (and his wife's death had preceded his by some months). He wrote that he had "adjusted after a fashion" with more gardening and word processing. "It's not too bad," he wrote further, "and it is 1,000 times better than risking the possibility of mangling others. . . . I hope that more seniors will be honest with themselves, face up to their waning driving abilities and volunteer themselves permanently out of the driver's seat."

Let me add that on one occasion, before I drove my friend and my wife to a distant restaurant for dinner, he urged getting a taxi. I've wondered whether he doubted my competence. His experience may have accentuated the cautiousness found at times in older people. Since cautiousness in older drivers may be either beneficial or hazardous (perhaps incurring rear-end collisions), I suggest it merits more attention in the driving research community.

An analysis I published on caution in driving (Parsons, 1976) analyzed both caution and driving itself in relation to motivational incentives and deterrents. These factors are not addressed very often in human factors/ergonomics research in highway transportation (Parsons, 1978), but surely such variables, and their study, should figure in efforts to get older people to self-regulate.

I received a letter from my friend dated two days before he died saying he had written to the newspaper after reading about an older person's driving error that resulted in several fatalities. Older drivers can be influenced directly as well by the admonitions of associates such as passengers. Even when no other driver is doing so, my careful and cautious wife now keeps telling me to obey every speed limit we see--and not to challenge that yellow light. These are examples of social factors that can be brought to bear, along with motivational variables. To borrow from an adage, man (and woman) cannot live (or drive) by cognition alone.

In referring to these matters regarding self-regulation, I have spoken both as a behavioral scientist and as one of the automobile end-users to whom ergonomists must listen: an older driver.


Eberhard, J.W. (1994). Mobility and safety: The mature driver's challenge. NHTSA Paper No. 94-S2-0-12. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Transportation.

Parsons, H.M. (1976). Caution behavior and its conditioning in driving. Human Factors, 18, 397-408.

Parsons, H.M. (1978). Simulation of highway accidents. In Proceedings of the Human Factors Society--22nd Annual Meeting, 625-630. Santa Monica, CA: Human Factors Society.

Parsons, H.M. (1984). Technological advances from a human factors point of view. In P.K. Robinson, J. Livingston, and J.E. Birren (Eds.), Aging and technological advances, 279-293.

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