More than 250 experts from across the Commonwealth, and across the country, gathered at UMass Boston on June 16 for the Older Driver Safety Summit, hosted by the Gerontology Institute at the John W. McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies, and sponsored by more than 20 organizations including AAA, Tufts Health Plan Foundation, Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, and Ford Motors.
Len Fishman, director of the Gerontology Institute, set the demographic context for the event: “We are on the threshold of the greatest later-life demographic surge in human history. The unprecedented growth of the 65-plus population in Massachusetts will influence every aspect of life in the Commonwealth, including … transportation. The quality of life of older adults and the people who care for them depends on how well we prepare for this new reality.”
Touted as a “think and do” conference, the aim of the summit was to create a five-year plan to reduce crashes and safe mobility for older drivers in Massachusetts. Summit participants included academics, engineers, car makers, policymakers, occupational therapists and other medical professionals, police officers, insurance providers, elder service specialists, and heads of councils on aging.
Joseph Coughlin, director of the MIT Age Lab, called driving “the glue that holds life together” for all ages. He said, “It’s time to stop the studies and start devising alternatives” like smarter cars, user-friendly public transportation, more innovative sharing options like Zipcars, and accessible community planning around town centers.
Massachusetts Secretary of Transportation Stephanie Pollack wrapped up the summit with a call to action.
“Today is not an end, it is a beginning,” she said, referring to the forthcoming blueprint for the Commonwealth.
Her staff will compile ideas on infrastructure improvements, vehicle design innovations, policy questions, education for older road users and the public, transportation options for older adults, insurance and liability concerns, and the medical impairment of drivers. “We will integrate our individual ideas in a unified plan.”
Throughout the daylong event, attendees could choose from four tracks on infrastructure, health care, mobility, and policy given by almost four dozen presenters and panelists. They also listened to Ron Medford describe Google’s prototype autonomous car that is currently being tested in four states and boasts onboard software and sensors that are accurate within 10 cm. Summit attendees saw demonstrations by Ford, including its self-parking care and age simulation suit, a heavily padded garb that instantly adds 30 years to your age allowing automotive engineers to better understand the limitations of senior mobility.
Nationally, two thirds of seniors over the age of 80 are still driving and they are spending more time behind the wheel today than in past generations.
Massachusetts seniors are involved in 20 percent of car accidents resulting in a median hospital stay of four days, and with rehabilitation and other medical costs associated with recovery, the over-65 age group spent $28.5 million in 2013 on crash-related health care expenses.
Although crash and fatality numbers are actually decreasing thanks to better roads and safer automobiles, “the trend is going in the right direction but there is certainly room for improvement,” noted UMass Boston Professor Elizabeth Dugan, an expert on older drivers and state transportation policies who organized the conference. “We aren’t ready yet,” she continued. “We need a basic reengineering of society to be age-friendly and transportation is a key component.”
Videos of all sessions will be available next month and posted on the McCormack Graduate School website: www.mccormack.umb.edu
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