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Data shows that motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of occupational fatalities for workers 55 years or older, but statisticians suggest this fact may be tied to more than just age and chronic health conditions.
Meanwhile, companies on the cutting edge of accident prevention are targeting driver practices and technologies to increase safety overall rather than focusing on age alone, according to experts.
But the numbers paint a bleak picture for older workers.
According to figures gathered by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, 3,200 workers ages 55 and older died in work-related crashes between 1992 and 2002, representing 22% of all occupational fatalities for workers in this age group.
NIOSH has called the relationship between age and driving behavior “complex,” noting in safety documents that changes due to normal aging—such as eyesight, muscle strength and range of motion—may affect a person's ability to drive, and that conditions such as arthritis and macular degeneration may contribute to the statistics.
“Older drivers are at 2.2 times the risk rate of young drivers (of getting into an work-related automobile accident),” said Stephanie Pratt, Morgantown, W.Va.-based coordinator for NIOSH's Center for Motor Vehicle Safety.
Ms. Pratt said when it comes to work-related driving, however, age is just a number.
Looking at the entire range of risk factors, “age isn't it; it's the kind of work that is more important,” said Ms. Pratt. “Actual miles driven are not taken into account, and we don't have data on that. Age makes a difference, but it's hard to say when you look at other factors.”
According to Ms. Pratt, a truck driver with longer hours on the road has a higher probability for an accident than someone driving for only part of a workday. “Here we look at who has more exposure to driving.”
Centers for Disease Control figures from 2003 to 2008 list truck drivers as having the highest number of fatalities in the driving workforce, accounting for 2,320 fatalities—28%—of the 8,173 deaths that occurred in that five-year period.
Experience breeds unsafe habits?
Another expert says experience also has more to do with accidents than the health factors associated with age alone.
“It's the experienced drivers that have developed the unsafe habits,” said David Mitchell, Little Rock, Ark.-based director of risk control and safety management with Aon Corp.'s trucking practice. “These are habits they later realize are unsafe.”
Mr. Mitchell, whose office works with more than 50 midsize and large trucking companies developing risk management practices for more than 40,000 drivers nationwide, has watched the industry shift into one that once was ad hoc to one that is now heavily regulated.
The changes haven't been adopted swiftly by those in the industry the longest, he added.
For example, Mr. Mitchell said, 15 years ago a fatigued driver of a tractor-trailer could pull off along the shoulder of a highway to take a needed rest, a longstanding workday habit that had been shown to cause collisions on the roadway. Nowadays, that practice is banned in several states, and interstate trucking firms as a result have banned the practice altogether, said Mr. Mitchell.
“The experienced drivers are the ones who tend to do this still,” he said.
That's why a top risk management strategy for companies that deploy drivers on the roadway is to monitor drivers, he said.
Among the most popular, electronic control modules installed on vehicles allow companies to monitor such actions as how often a driver hits the brakes—a sign that he or she may be tailgating; whether he or she tends to make rapid movements, from turns to lane changes—a sign that he or she may not be an attentive driver; and how fast the driver is going. Technology also can preset how fast a vehicle can go, with a standard of 65-70 miles per hour in some instances, said Mr. Mitchell.
“We are finding that there are a lot of safety management techniques out there,” he said.
As for limiting exposure, federal regulations also help, providing guidance on how fast and how far a truck driver can go on an interstate highway in a given work day, he added.
Anne McCartt, Arlington, Va.-based senior vp for research with the nonprofit Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, said the regulations and the ongoing research have helped create a safer workplace, although the work is far from complete.
“For years we thought the government could do better and it has,” she said, adding that larger trucks and buses—and not age of the drivers alone—have been a focus for some time.
Tips for preventing work-related crashes
NIOSH also suggests that employers follow these guidelines to manage their workforce drivers:
• Develop policies that assign a key member of management responsibility for setting and enforcing a comprehensive driver safety policy.
• Enforce seatbelt use.
• Do not require irregular hours; keep workday hours normal.
• Promote worker health and safety through diet, exercise and smoking cessation programs.
• Assess driver ability through regular physical examinations.
• Restrict driving based on assessment of ability and not on age or health alone.
• If a worker's ability is affected temporarily, assign him or her other duties than driving.
• Provide refresher driver training and encourage older workers to attend.
• Maintain complete and accurate records of drivers' performance.
• Encourage familiar driving routes.