For years, transportation experts worried about an increase in fatalities among older drivers, especially as those ranks grew. But a recent study from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) reveals that drivers ages 70 and older are now less likely to be involved in a fatal traffic accident than those 35 to 54.
From 1997 to 2018, fatal accidents per licensed driver 70 and older fell by 43 percent. Compare that with middle-aged drivers 35 to 54, who saw a decline in fatal accidents of 21 percent for the same period. Furthermore, for the first time, in 2017 drivers 70 and older had fewer crashes reported to police per mile than middle-aged drivers.
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So why the good news?
Better health and physical fitness among septuagenarians is part of the answer, according to the study from the Arlington, Virginia–based nonprofit, which receives its money from insurers and insurance trade associations. Also contributing factors: basic safety improvements in vehicles and the tendency of more mature drivers to engage in less risky behavior behind the wheel compared with middle-aged drivers.
Physically fit drivers less vulnerable
“Probably the most important element is that older people have become healthier as a group,” Jessica Cicchino, vice president for research at IIHS, said in an interview with AARP. Cicchino, a coauthor of the study, pointed out that improved health means less visual and cognitive decline as we age, making us safer drivers.
Healthier and therefore less fragile drivers also are more likely to survive and recover from an accident that might have killed someone the same age in decades past, says Jon Antin, director of the Center for Vulnerable Road User Safety at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute in Blacksburg.
“Still, the older you get, the more fragile you get. And that’s something we have to take into account when we design cars,” said Lotta Jakobsson, senior technical leader of safety at the Volvo Car Corp. in Gothenburg, Sweden. In effect, the older population sets the limits on design of the restraints. “Seat belts and airbags working together are tuned for them,” she says.
Every year, researchers learn more and continue to tweak existing safety systems, she says. New cars get safer and safer. Cicchino and Volvo’s Jakobsson also singled out one feature they considered a major safety improvement.
“The inflatable curtain airbag made a huge difference when it was introduced in 1998,” Jakobsson says. Side curtain airbags are typically hidden in the door frame above side windows and deploy in a side impact collision to protect a driver or passenger’s head from hitting the window. “Cars without those systems are not as safe as those with those systems.”
Older drivers less likely to text, talk
“Anything that takes your hands off the wheel and your eyes off the road is going to increase crash risk,” Virginia Tech’s Antin says. “And seniors are far less willing to engage in such secondary tasks.”
While no large study of older drivers has looked at their use of distracting smartphones behind the wheel, it stands to reason that younger drivers who grew up with cellphones are going to be more tempted to text or talk while driving. Younger drivers also are more likely to engage in risky behaviors, such as speeding or drinking and driving, Cicchino says.
The number of older licensed drivers rose almost twice as fast from 2010 to 2018 compared with the previous decade, and older drivers’ average annual mileage also continued to increase, the IIHS says. Its study looks at pre-pandemic driving, so how COVID-19 has affected the driving habits of those 70 and older in the past year remains to be analyzed.
Fatal wrecks lower for all age groups in 2019
Still, in 2019, the last year for which final figures are available, motor vehicle accident fatalities for all ages in the United States were down 2 percent, to 36,096, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. It follows a three-year trend of improvements, but accident researchers believe that we can reduce the rate of fatalities among older drivers further.
Their advice: “Get the safest car you can afford,” Cicchino says. That means the newer the car, the better, says Antin, who recently participated in the federal government’s first Older Adults’ Mobility Research Meeting, featuring researchers from around the world.
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Better headlights for improved visibility and warning systems to point out someone in your blind spot can be particularly helpful for older drivers, Cicchino says. You don’t necessarily need the latest high-tech driver assistance package to get better protection
For example, Volvo’s Jakobsson pointed out that older drivers are more vulnerable to chest injuries and fracture. Now safety systems are designed to use less force with seat belts and compensate with airbags in the event of a crash.
“In the biomechanics field, we are focused on the older population,” she says. “But in the process the younger drivers will get better protection, too.”
Contributing writer John R. Quain also writes for The New York Times and is editor in chief of On the Road .