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  • By John R. Quain

Older Drivers Are Now Safer Drivers?

Updated: Apr 11, 2022

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 to 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.

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.

Keep Working Out

"Probably the most important element is that older people have become healthier as a group," said Jessica Cicchino, vice president of research at IIHS, in an interview with AARP. Cicchino, who co-authored the study, pointed out that improved health means less visual and cognitive decline as we age, thus making us safer drivers.

"Another factor for older drivers is frailty and fragility," noted Jon Antin, who is the director of the Center for Vulnerable Road User Safety (CVRUS) at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTT) in Blacksburg, Virginia. Antin, who was not involved in the IIHS study, told AARP that healthier and therefore less fragile older drivers would be expected to do better in terms of surviving and recovering from an accident as well. Another incentive for the silver generation to keep fit.

"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, safety, at the Volvo Car Corporation in Gothenburg, Sweden. So in effect the older population sets the limits on the design of the restraints. "Seat belts and airbags working together are are tuned for them," explained Jakobsson. She noted that every year, researchers learn more and continue to tweak existing systems.

"There's a general improvement in crash worthiness as newer cars get safer and safer every year," said Cicchino from IIHS. Cicchino and Volvo's Jakobsson also singled out one feature they felt was a major safety improvement.

"The inflatable curtain airbag made a huge difference when it was introduced in 1998," said Jakobsson. Side curtain airbags are typically hidden in the door frame above the side windows in a car and deploy in a side impact collision to protect the driver or passenger's head from hitting the window. "Cars without those systems are not as safe as those with those systems," said Jakobsson.

Older and Wiser?

"What we've found in our research is that anything that takes your hands off the wheel and your eyes off the road is going to increase crash risk," pointed out Virginia Tech's Antin. "And seniors are far less willing to engage in such secondary tasks."

While there aren't any sufficiently large studies about older drivers and the use of distracting smartphones behind the wheel, it stands to reason that younger drivers who grew up with a cell phone in their hand are going to be more tempted to text or talk while driving. And younger drivers are more likely to engage in risky behaviors, such as speeding or drinking and driving, said Cicchino.

The IIHS study only covers pre-pandemic driving statistics, so how COVID19 has affected the driving habits of those over 70 during the past year remains to be seen. However, according to the IIHS the number of older licensed drivers rose almost twice as fast from 2010 to 2018 compared to the previous decade, and older drivers’ average annual mileage also continued to increase.

Still, in 2019, the last year for which final figures are available, motor vehicle accident fatalities in the U.S. were down 2 percent to 36,096, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. It follows a 3-year improving trend, but accident researchers believe that we can further reduce the rate of fatalities among older drivers. Their advice: "Get the safest car you can afford," said Cicchino. That means the newer the car, the better, agreed Antin, who recently participated in the first Research on Older Adult Mobility Meeting convened by NHTSA and featuring researchers from around the world.

Better headlights for improved visibility and blind-spot warning systems can be particularly helpful for older drivers, noted Cicchino. And 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, so now safety systems designers use less force with the seat belts and compensate with air bags in the event of a crash.

"In the biomechanics field, we are focused on the older population," she said, "but in the process the younger drivers will get better protection, too."


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