Future increase in alcohol use by elderly drivers expected

May 29, 1997

ANN ARBOR—While most drunk drivers are younger than 65, alcohol could pose a larger problem in the near future for more and more elderly motorists, says a University of Michigan researcher.

“Older drivers today grew up during Prohibition and the Great Depression, when per capita alcohol consumption was very low,” says Patricia F. Waller, director of the U-M Transportation Research Institute. “Drivers who will achieve elderly status over the next 20 years may bring very different alcohol-related behaviors, as well as very different driving behaviors.”

With many states lowering the legal drinking age to 18 and with greater social and economic freedom for women in the last 30 years, more baby-boomers, especially females, use alcohol than their parents did when they were younger, Waller says.

“Women who grew up at a time when alcohol was not used widely or heavily by women may be less inclined to use it in their older years,” she says. “In contrast, women who came of age in the 1960s and ’70s bring with them very different attitudes and behaviors.

“Because alcohol appears to differentially increase the crash risk for both women and the elderly, the emerging cohort of elderly drivers may pose very different problems than those we have witnessed in the past.”

Waller’s recent report on “Alcohol, Aging and Driving” shows that older motorists are the fastest growing segment of drivers, increasing their licensure at a somewhat higher rate than the rest of the population. Elderly women, in particular, she says, will obtain driver’s licenses at nearly the same rate as men, as drivers under 50 grow older.

Waller says that while alcohol-related crashes for older drivers are rare—11 percent of drivers ages 65 to 74 and 5 percent of those 75 and older tested positive for alcohol in fatal crashes in 1994—alcohol appears to have a greater impact on elderly persons.

When measures of crash severity are taken into account, older drivers have a greater risk of dying, Waller says. They also are more likely to be involved in a crash than motorists under 65, based on miles driven.

Further, although alcohol use appears to decline with age, the percentage of elderly drinkers who use alcohol heavily (19 percent of men, 10 percent of women) is just as high as that of any other age group of drinkers, she adds.

While abstinence rates for all age groups are up, Waller says that the drinking habits of middle age may persist into older age.

“The emerging older driver population brings different drinking behaviors, particularly among women,” she says. “Because women and older persons appear to be more impaired by alcohol and because both women and the elderly are a growing presence in the driving population, there is a need to take preventive measures to avoid future problems with alcohol and older drivers.”

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Patricia F. Waller[email protected]