For eons, an old man driving while wearing a hat or an old lady peeking over the steering wheel have been images portraying inept drivers. The validity of such portrayal is fading according to recent research by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Their data reveals that drivers in their 70s are now less likely to be involved in a fatal crash than those in their prime working years. That’s a remarkable reversal for a generation of drivers once thought to be safety threats to themselves and others.
In the past, the only reason that traffic crashes diminished as a death cause with aged drivers is that other health factors like heart failure and cancer outpace vehicle wrecks as drivers get older. But now, statistics indicate elderly vehicle-related death is also less likely when compiled on a “per licensed driver” basis.
The number of older drivers has grown rapidly over the past twenty years. But better health and safer vehicles have prevented an accompanying rise in crashes. Not only do drivers in their 70s now have fewer fatal crashes per licensed driver, but they also have fewer crashes per mile traveled than middle-aged drivers.
Historically, older drivers were not only more likely to crash than younger ones — they were less likely to survive the crash. With the aging of the Baby Boom generation, a potential road safety crisis seemed inevitable, the National Academies warned in 1988. A decade later, fatal crashes involving older drivers peaked at more than 4,800 in 1997.
For the new study, IIHS researchers compared trends among drivers 70 and over with drivers ages 35-54, looking at fatal crash involvements per 100,000 licensed drivers and per vehicle mile traveled, police-reported crash involvements per vehicle mile traveled, and the number of driver deaths per 1,000 police-reported crashes.
The number of older licensed drivers rose almost twice as fast from 2010 to 2018 as it had in the previous decade, while older drivers’ average annual mileage also continued to grow. “Improvements in healthcare mean that older Americans are remaining active and staying in the workforce,” says Jessica Cicchino, a co-author of the study. “It follows that they’re not only keeping their licenses longer but also driving more miles.”
For drivers 70 and over, fatal crash rates per licensed driver fell 43 percent from 1997 to 2018, compared with a decline of 21 percent for drivers ages 35-54. Per vehicle mile traveled, both fatal crashes and police-reported crashes of all severities rose substantially for middle-aged drivers in recent years and declined for drivers 70 and over. As a result, septuagenarians had fewer police-reported crashes per mile than middle-aged drivers for the first time in 2017.
At the same time, improved health means older drivers are less likely to crash because the onset of problems like failing eyesight and impaired cognitive function is delayed. Seniors who are in better shape are also more likely to survive crashes.
And vehicles have gotten safer. The proportion of registered vehicles that earn good ratings in IIHS crash tests increases each year, and safety innovations like side airbags have been especially beneficial for older drivers.
“Older adults hold onto their vehicles longer, so it takes longer for them to reap the benefits of safety advancements,” Cicchino says. “That means we’re likely to see senior survival rates continue to improve as these advancements work their way into the U.S. fleet.”
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