BRATTLEBORO -- When elderly drivers are involved in motor vehicle accidents, the nearly immediate reaction by many is that they shouldn't be behind the wheel or that increased testing needs to take place.
In the past three weeks drivers older than 80-years-old have been at fault in three separate fatal motor vehicles accidents in southern Vermont and western New Hampshire.
On Aug. 25, when 87-year-old Robert Lockerby, of Walpole, N.H., crossed the center line of Route 12 and crashed into a group of motorcyclists participating in a memorial ride, killing two and injuring seven, including his 87-year-old wife riding in the car with him, many people questioned at what age should someone not be allowed to drive.
Before Lockerby died from injuries sustained in the crash, he told members of the New Hampshire State Police he didn't know why he drove into the group of riders.
Although it may seem like the number of fatal accidents occurring in such a short span point to some kind of trend, experts say that's simply not the case and that elderly drivers pose no greater risk than any other age group.
According to a new study published by the Journal of American Geriatrics Society, researchers reviewed police reports of fatal accidents in the UK from 1989 through 2009 and found, on average, drivers older than 70 accounted for far less fatal accidents than drivers younger than 29.
In 2009, only one in 10 drivers over 70
Lisa Rosenberg, assistant professor of medicine at Touro University in Nevada, told the Reformer it isn't the aging process itself that affects someone ability to drive -- what she calls "driver fitness" -- because everyone ages differently.
"For some people it's vision, others muscular or skeletal issues, and for many its cognition," Rosenberg said.
Baby boomers, who will make up the fastest growing segment of the population, are expected to double the number of older drivers on the road, to 57 million, by 2030, according to AAA.
Jake Nelson, AAA's director of traffic safety advocacy and research, said there's no reason to be alarmed by the vast increase in elderly drivers.
Nelson told the Associated Press that on average, drivers in their mid-to late-80s have lower crash rates per mile driven that those in their early 20s.
Rosenberg echoed Nelson's sentiment.
"There's going to be a tidal wave of baby boomers and older drivers are just part of that wave," Rosenberg said. "Some will be very good drivers, others not. But there isn't an age that makes the most sense to prevent people from driving. That's age discrimination."
Denying someone the ability to drive can have a direct negative impact, especially for elderly people, she said.
"Having to give up driving is linked to depression," Rosenberg said. "It makes it harder for them to get to their doctor, run errands, makes them more isolated and can affect their overall health."
For rural states like Vermont, finding alternatives to driving can be difficult, but Joyce Lemire, executive director of Senior Solutions, says there are options.
"It can be extremely difficult for people to give up their ability to drive because it can feel like they've lost their independence," she said. "In Brattleboro people can get around fairly easily without a car, taking the Bee Line or the Connecticut River Transit buses, but for those living in even more rural areas they need a little more help.
Lemire said in places such as Dummerston, Guilford and Marlboro, volunteers are available to drive elderly residents to and from appointments. If people are really struggling, she suggested contacting Senior Solutions at 1-800-642-5119 to see if other options are available.
If there were laws passed that prohibited drivers of a certain age, it could hurt the Meals on Wheels program, which relies on drivers, most of whom are older than 70, to deliver food to older residents who can't get around.
Although Vermont has no restrictions or additional testing for older drivers, 28 other states do.
In Nevada, at age 72, residents have to get a vision test or have a note from their doctor stating they're still able to drive before their license can be renewed, Rosenberg said.
Similarly, in California, all drivers older than 70 must pass a vision and written test every five years to get their licenses renewed.
The controversial subject of elderly drivers became headline news again in the Sunshine State after a 100-year-old man backed his vehicle into a group of nine children and two adults waiting for an after school treat.
The accident was similar to a July 2003 incident when an 86-year-old man drove through a crowded Farmers' Market in downtown Santa Monica, Calif., killing 10 people and injuring 63 others.
The Vermont State Police, in an effort to get drivers to slow down and drive safer, launched Operation HEAT, setting up DUI checkpoints, and placing police cruisers along major highways and heavily used roads to check for speeders.
The program started on July 4, but since that time there has been 11 traffic fatalities.
That's about one every four and a half days, on average, which would put Vermont on pace for 80 fatal motor vehicle accidents a year.
In 2011, there were 55 traffic fatalities on Vermont roads, the lowest number since 1944, but to date there have already been 53 deaths caused by 47 crashes, according to Vermont State Trooper Anthony French.
Josh Stilts can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 802-254-2311 ext. 273.
The Associated Press Contributed to this story.