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  • By John R. Quain

High-Tech Safety Systems Help to Dispel Myths About Older Drivers

Updated: May 7

The rap against older drivers is that they are a hazard on the road, only drive on Sundays, and can't keep up with new technologies. Fortunately, the truth is much different. Younger demographics get involved in more accidents, older drivers are putting on more miles than ever, and more senior citizens are benefiting from new automotive technologies.

"With aging Baby Boomers we were worried that crashes and fatalities would increase, but we didn't see that happen. It's not all doom and gloom as we once expected 20 years ago," says Amiee Cox, a research associate at the nonprofit Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). "Historically older drivers were thought of as having a higher crash risk, and we're not seeing that these days."

In fact, in a 2021 IIHS study led by Cox, the number of fatal crashes and police reported crashes was lower for drivers aged 70 to 79 than for drivers in the 35- to 54-year-old age group. So the truth is, older drivers are involved in fewer fatal collisions per capita than in the past.

And while traffic fatalities for folks 70 and older has recently increased, they remain down from their 1997 peak, even as the number of licensed older drivers and the miles they drive has increased. A total of 5,209 people age 70 and older died in crashes in 2021. That's 11 percent fewer than in 1997.

This is also a positive trend when you consider that older drivers are keeping their licenses longer and represent a larger percentage of the U.S. population than ever before. From 1997 to 2021, the number of licensed drivers 70 and older increased by 83 percent. Moreover, the trend is expected to continue, based on the latest U.S. Census Bureau data, with the 70-and-older population is expected to top 53 million people by 2030.

So with more older drivers behind the wheel why haven't we seen in increase in accidents in that demographic?

One reason: Experience counts. Older drivers are more likely than younger drivers to use a seat belt and obey traffic rules, according to the New York State Department of Health, and the years of accumulated driving miles means they are better at handling different road and traffic situations.

Stefan Heck, whose company, Nauto, monitors and helps train commercial drivers, concurs. "In fleets, it's very clear, their experience matters," say Heck, Nauto's CEO. " A brand new hire is twice as risky as those who already know the vehicle and routes. In the first 12 months, there are double the number collisions compared to other drivers in the fleet."

Critical Safety Systems

As we live longer and continue to drive, many older Americans while healthier still remain what traffic experts and researchers refer to as vulnerable road users (or VRUs). Older drivers, for example, are more vulnerable to torso injuries in accidents, according to IIHS's Cox. Consequently, safety systems in vehicles are even more important for seniors behind the wheel.

"In frontal impacts, the safety belt together with frontal airbags," are essential says Thomas Broberg, senior safety expert at Volvo Cars.

Jennifer Morrison, manager of vehicle safety compliance at Mazda North America, agrees. "Gone are the days of vehicles equipped with only two airbags - modern vehicles like the all-new Mazda CX-90, have upwards of 10," points out Morrison, who spent more than a decade investigating accidents at the National Transportation Safety Board before joining Mazda. Many of today's cars and SUVs have not only front airbags but also side-curtain, side-impact, and knee-bolster air bags to "cushion our fragile bodies in the event of a collision."

Improved safety systems, all the experts agree, have contributed to lowering the accident fatality rates for older drivers. So experts also recommend that older drivers take advantage of the latest technology.

"The number one safety feature with a proven track record of reducing the occurrence and severity of crashes is automatic emergency braking (AEB)," says Mazda's Morrison. Using a combination of cameras and radars to monitor the road ahead, AEB can prevent half of all rear-end crashes by triggering alerts and then automatically hitting the brakes when necessary, according to Morrison.

"The evolution of autobrake technologies have moved rapidly the last decades, increasing the types of situations they may include," notes Lotta Jakobsson, senior technical specialist, injury prevention, at Volvo Cars. It's the reason the NHTSA recently announced automatic emergency braking systems will be mandatory on vehicles in the U. S. by 2029. Volvo' systems include large-animal detection technology intended to avoid deer and other animal accidents, which can be deadly.

Morrison also recommends buying a vehicle with a blind spot monitoring (BSM) system. "Those little lights in the side mirrors make all the difference," she says, and can prevent sideswipe accidents and the likelihood of dangerous lane changes.

More Advanced Safety Systems

Safety technologies in cars improve almost every year. "Unfortunately older drivers drive vehicles that are older," says IIHS's Cox. "So it's taking them longer to reap the benefit of [newer] vehicles that are rated better in our crash tests."

The message: older driver should go for the newest automotive safety technologies to protect themselves. Those technologies include rear cross traffic alerts to prevent collisions when backing up and lane departure warning systems. Indeed, inadvertently going off road can be so injurious for drivers and passengers that Volvo developed an automatic run-off road system that senses when a vehicle has left the pavement and uses a system of tensioners and mechanical systems to keep car occupants upright and safe.

For older drivers, IIHS's Cox points out that left-hand turns at busy intersections are a particular hazard for senior drivers, who experience a third of all accidents in such situations. "BMW, for example, has a left-turn assistant," says Cox. "It engages when you signal a left turn and then alerts and issues a warning if it senses there is going to be crash."

Of course, old dogs will have to learn some new tricks to reap the benefits of these latest technologies. New car owners need to take time to learn how each of the systems work in order to recognize and understand warnings like blind spot alerts.

"The safety systems do help," says Nauto's Heck, "if you know what to do."

Stay Vigilant

For all the positive news for older drivers and drivers in general, there's still plenty of reason to remain vigilant. While traffic fatalities in the U.S. remained flat from 2021 to 2022, it's not good news because after experiencing a steady decline, overall traffic deaths have been rapidly increasing over the past decade or so, from 32,479 in 2011 to 42,795 in 2022 fatalities. Experts have offered several explanations for the increase but the general view in the transportation industry is that driver distraction due to the use of smartphones is generally to blame.

"I've witnessed far too many avoidable crashes, many of which hinged on human error," says Mazda's Morrison recalling her experience at the NTSB before joining the automaker. "Despite advancements in automotive safety technology, the most critical safety system in today's cars is still the driver. So, to ensure your safety and the safety of others on the road, remember to buckle up, put down the phone, and just drive."

A version of this story appears at AARP.


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