Fundación MAPFRE presents an unpublished study conducted in Brazil that analyzes the relationship between older people and driving, addressing issues related to road safety, mobility, travel habits and the moment when seniors stop driving.
TEXT: SILVIA MARTINELLI
With a total of 31.2 million people, older adults (aged 60 and over) represent 17.4% of Brazil’s total population, which in 2021 stood at 212.7 million. According to the IBGE (Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics), in the next 20 years, one in four Brazilians will be over 60 years of age and they will live mainly in urban areas.
Population aging and urbanization are two marked trends and, today, represent one of the main challenges for policymakers. Aging directly affects how people move around in cities, due to accessibility needs and related health aspects.
“Increasingly present in both the economy and society, the percentage of the elderly population will grow significantly in the coming years. Longevity has hit the radar of governments, institutions and the private sector, which are paying ever closer attention to this segment of the population that has great influence and consumer power”, emphasizes Antonio de Carvalho Junior, manager of Longevidade Expo + Forum, the main Brazilian event aimed at the senior public.
The impact of aging is even more pertinent for drivers than for pedestrians, as operating a motor vehicle involves a wide range of physical abilities that may be affected in a public with significant sensory and cognitive losses, and which may influence their ability to operate a vehicle. About 14% of people between the ages of 70 and 74, for example, already have significant visual impairment.
Another fundamental point in understanding the relationship between the older population and driving vehicles involves social issues. Driving a vehicle is an activity that gives seniors autonomy and, if they are able to drive, they are able to play an important role in the family dynamics, as they help other members of the family to get around.
Given that a significant portion of city dwellers are older people, it is necessary to make cities more amenable and assess the risks that exist particularly in large urban centers, since the reduced functional capacity of seniors increases the chances of traffic incidents occurring.
These are some of the conclusions expressed by the study Adiós a las llaves: perfil, seguridad y el momento de la transición [Goodbye Keys: Profile, Safety and the Moment of Transition], prepared by CEBRAP (Brazilian Center of Analysis and Planning) in partnership with Fundación MAPFRE. The study addresses issues related to road safety, mobility, travel habits and when older people stop driving.
“Talking about the older adults and urban mobility means studying a social phenomenon in Brazil: the aging of the population. When we talk about urban mobility, we must take the aging of the population into account, an aspect that goes beyond urban mobility and which we already see in other stages of social life. We will have to talk more and more about this issue”, says Victor Callil, a CEBRAP researcher and coordinator of the study. This is important research carried out with the aim of understanding how the activity of driving a vehicle works among seniors (60 years and older), who account for 18% of drivers with a license in Brazil. The results show that the urban mobility of the elderly and their decision to stop driving or not is determined by various aspects of their social life.
“For Fundación MAPFRE it is very satisfying to be able to contribute to reporting important information related to traffic and older people. Our goal is to encourage the dissemination of reliable data that can help shape public policies and mobilize the public authorities and society itself to promote initiatives capable of ensuring the safety of the elderly in their daily travels and make our traffic more humane and safe for everyone”, says Fátima Lima, Fundación MAPFRE’s representative in Brazil.
CEBRAP’s research team conducted fieldwork and interviewed 1,406 people aged 60 and over in five Brazilian state capitals: São Paulo, Salvador, Río de Janeiro, Recife and Porto Alegre. In addition, four focus groups were also set up comprising people aged 70 and over who are still driving or who stopped driving at most three years ago.
One of the objectives of this study was to understand the links and motivations for giving up the car keys, in other words, the process of stopping driving. During the pandemic, many isolated elderly people stopped driving and have not resumed this activity.
The impact of aging is even more pertinent for drivers than for pedestrians
The results show that older people leave home less after the pandemic: the majority go out at most three times a week, mainly to visit relatives and friends. The most frequently used means of travel, and the ones whose frequency of use was maintained during the pandemic among this group, were walking and driving.
According to the study, the elderly population accounted for about 15% of deaths in traffic incidents in Brazil between 2015 and 2020, with an average of 4977 older people being killed on Brazilian streets and highways each year. Half of these roads deaths in Brazil in this period (51%) involved people aged between 60 and 69 years, 33% were between 70 and 79, and 16% were 80 or older.
Whereas the proportion of non-collision incidents (for example, sudden braking that can lead to neck damage , injuries or minor contusions) involving older people is 15%, among the rest of the population this proportion is less than 10%. These incidents are mainly due to personal problems in which the individual may have had a health mishap, but they are also caused by infrastructure problems or by poor signage. Of the total number of seniors killed in traffic incidents, 43% were pedestrians, 32% were driving a vehicle, 24% were passengers in the vehicle, and 1% died entering or exiting a vehicle.
The research also looked at the news published in the main national newspapers (in the period from January 1, 2017, to July 15, 2022) regarding traffic incidents involving elderly people. And the results are striking: only 10 news items were found, representing 11 accidents involving elderly people and traffic incidents, a situation quite different from that seen in Spain, for example, where such incidents are given greater visibility.
In most of these accidents, the elderly were pedestrians. “In other words, the elderly are victims of fairly aggressive traffic, since the incidents were caused by the recklessness of other drivers. This data underlines an issue addressed in the study, which is the need to make cities friendlier for older people, and the importance of making the urban environment more amenable to both the elderly and society as a whole”, emphasizes Daniela Costanzo, a CEBRAP researcher.
People with driving licenses
The volume of people over 60 years old with a license to drive a car in Brazil grew at an average rate of 10% per year between 2011 and 2021, leading to a figure of 18% of older people having a driver’s license in 2021. Men are the majority license holders at all ages, but the difference grows as age increases, with women dropping to only 29% in the 71 to 80 age group. The Brazilian Highway Code does not indicate the maximum age for driving.
There is, however, a reduction in how long driving licenses are valid for. Since April 2021, people over 70 years of age have licenses that are only valid for three years.
In Brazil, driving is highly valued culturally, given the country’s mobility network, which is very much adapted to the use of automobiles. In addition, giving up driving is a delicate moment for the elderly population, often associated with the loss of autonomy. “That is why studies like this one are so important, to try to change the idea that aging implies a loss of faculties when it also implies greater wisdom, and we must stress that older people can still contribute a great deal to society”, says Fernanda Zerbini, a researcher in the area of human rights and public policy with an emphasis on the rights of seniors.
Among the benefits of driving mentioned by both men and women who continue to drive, the most important is freedom. Women attach more importance to issues related to the cognitive benefits of continuing to engage in this activity: “I think that having a car is great, it has definite advantages. For that reason, I don’t plan to stop driving, I’m just going to delay the decision so I can analyze it better, although I believe that each person should be aware of when the time has come for them”, stated a participant in one of the focus groups organized as part of the study. However, the report also shows that when a senior is forced to stop driving, they adapt well to the new situation, with the added benefit that more walking is associated with improved health and, in addition, increased savings linked to using public transport.
Drivers by sex
Women are in the minority among drivers in all age groups, but in older age groups this difference becomes even more evident. The highest proportion of women with a driving license is in the age group 31 to 50: 44%.
But this percentage gradually decreases in older age groups, dropping to 21% in the 81 to 90 age group and just 13% among women aged 91 and over.