Reese Witherspoon mishap puts older motorists in spotlight

Reese Witherspoon in Beverly Hills, Calif. on July 10, 2011
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reese witherspoon
Reese Witherspoon in Beverly Hills, Calif. on July 10, 2011
Getty Images

(CBS) Elderly motorists are in the spotlight following reports that an 84-year-old woman was driving the car that struck actress Reese Witherspoon on Wednesday as she jogged in Santa Monica, Calif.

The accident left the Oscar-winning actress with minor injuries and the motorist with a ticket for failure to yield right-of-way to a pedestrian in a crosswalk, the Associated Press reported. Where does that leave the rest of us who share the road?

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Experts say the question of whether advancing age makes people more dangerous behind the wheel is a complicated one.

A 2008 study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety concluded that older drivers are far more likely to be involved in and responsible for crashes in which they themselves die. But whether they are more dangerous to other motorists depends on how risk is measured.

Compared to drivers in their thirties, a randomly selected 85-year-old driver would be more than 1,500 percent more likely to cause and die in a crash and about 220 percent more likely to kill another motorist or pedestrian, according to the study. But account for the fact that older motorists drive fewer miles, and that 85-year-old driver is about 720 percent more likely than a 30-something driver to die in a crash - but only about 0.8 percent more likely to cause an accident that takes someone else's life.

What makes some older drivers dangerous? Slower reflexes no doubt deserve much of the blame, along with poor eyesight and/or hearing. Another common problem is the medicines older motorists take. A 2009 study showed that 69 percent of drivers age 55 or older take one or more drugs with the potential to impair driving ability.

To lower the risk posed by elderly motorists, the foundation has called for changes to the licensing process - perhaps revamping policies that govern eye exams and requiring in-person renewals of expired licenses.

"The foundation does not believe that anybody should have their car keys taken away simply because they reach a certain age," foundation spokesman Dan Bleier told CBS News in an email. "Instead, states should have a fair and comprehensive system to screen all drivers applying for new or renewed licenses to ensure they are medically and functionally fit to drive."

Seniordrivers.org has more on aging motorists.