Rules of the Road

Do senior drivers have it right? Is it safer to drive when the sun is still up?

Most senior drivers tend to avoid driving during the rush hour and try to return home before it gets dark. Whatcom County crash statistics show they might be making the safer choice.
Most senior drivers tend to avoid driving during the rush hour and try to return home before it gets dark. Whatcom County crash statistics show they might be making the safer choice. Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

Question: As seniors we avoid rush hour driving whether it’s early morning or after four in the afternoon. We rarely drive at night. We believe we are safer on the road mid-day 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Is our assessment and decision based on reality as far as safety and crashes?

Answer: When it comes to driving, getting older generally works against you. However, this question demonstrates one area where that’s not true: Wisdom.

When I was 16, I don’t ever remember wondering about the safest time to drive. As we get older (and hopefully smarter) we start asking questions like this one.

So let’s begin the quest to find the safest time to drive.

One of the first driving habits that older drivers often give up is night driving. Usually it’s because it gets more difficult to see as we get older.

Back in middle school I remember learning about the rods and cones in our eyes. Or more accurately, I remember dissecting a pig eyeball and hearing the teacher mention something about rods and cones. We need cones to see color and detail, and we need rods for night vision.

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According to Harvard Medical School, as we age, we tend to keep the same number of cones in our eyes, but lose about a third of our rods. Our pupils also shrink as we age, letting less light into our eyes.

The light that does make it in has to go through a lens that gets cloudy in older eyeballs, causing us to struggle with glare. For many drivers the deterioration of night vision is so gradual it goes unnoticed until it’s pointed out either by an eye doctor or a frightening driving event.

Even if your eyes are in great shape, night driving is still the worst time to drive.

Research by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that about half of all fatal crashes happen at night. That might sound like an even split between day and night, but only 25 percent of driving happens at night, making night driving three times more dangerous than day driving.

You can probably guess why: During the day 14 percent of fatal crashes involve an impaired driver. At night that jumps to 54 percent. In the Whatcom County crash data there is a spike in fatal crashes between midnight and 3 a.m., peak travel time for people returning home from bars and parties.

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At night speed-related crashes increase from 27 percent to 37 percent, and fewer people wear a seatbelt at night. You’d think that if you’re three times more likely to get in a crash, you’d be three times more likely to wear your seatbelt, but for some reason (most likely impairment) reality seems to operate inversely.

During the day, the peak time for fatal crashes is during the afternoon rush hour, which isn’t too much of a surprise, given that it’s also a peak travel time. But here’s something interesting: In Washington, the morning commute has about half the fatalities of the evening commute. I’ll get to the reason why in a minute.

There are also a high number of fatal crashes in the early afternoon. What happens then? School gets out. Around schools you have a high concentration of vehicles and an over-representation of young drivers, who despite having the best vision and reaction time of all of us, perform the worst on the road. There’s that ‘wisdom’ part of driving again.

Along with time, there’s also place. In Whatcom County more fatal crashes occur on rural roads than on state routes, the freeway or city streets. Depending on the road, it could be attributed to narrow shoulders, relatively fast speed limits and road user demographic.

We don’t talk much about differences in who drives on what roads, but there is a difference; maybe that’ll be a topic in the future.

When we consider the safest time to drive, we tend to look at external factors like daylight, weather and traffic density. We should also ask ourselves if it’s the right time for each of us as individuals to be on the road.

Obviously, if someone is impaired that’s a bad time to drive, but that’s not the only consideration. There’s a good reason why our morning commute is safer than the evening commute; in the morning most drivers are well-rested and fresh. Even if you didn’t get a good night’s sleep, you’re in better shape on the way to work than on the way home. Stress, anxiety, and other emotional states affect our ability to drive well.

Driving is a complex task, and an exhausted, unfocused or distracted brain isn’t very good at it.

As we age it’s important to recognize limitations in our driving ability, even to the point of being willing to give it up, but whatever our age, let’s keep asking wise questions about safe driving.

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Doug Dahl, Target Zero Manager for the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force, answers questions about road laws, safe driving habits and general police practices every Monday. Ask him a question using our form. Target Zero is Washington’s vision to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030. For more traffic safety information visit