Thanks to safer vehicles being built, crash rates are dropping for drivers of all ages since 1997, but they’re especially falling for drivers 70 and older, according to a report.
That may sound counterintuitive since problems normally associated with elderly drivers — poor vision, slower reaction times and mobility problems — can lead to more difficulty driving and thus more accidents.
Hitting the gas pedal too hard when you think the car is in drive, but is in reverse, can be deadly, for example. A 79-year-old Florida woman backed out of a handicapped space in a church parking lot recently and killed three people when she lost control of her SUV by thinking her car was in drive when it was in reverse.
Overall, though, fatal crashes are falling for drivers of all ages. During 1997-2012, fatal crash rates per licensed driver fell 42% for drivers 70 and older, and fell 30% for middle-age ones from 35 to 54 years old, according to the study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
The older the driver, the more fatal crash rates fell. Among older drivers, fatal crash involvement rates per licensed driver fell 36% for drivers ages 70-74, 46% for drivers 75-79, and 49% for drivers 80 and older. There were similar declines in injury crashes for older drivers.
The study reported that 4,079 people ages 70 and older died in crashes in 2012, which is 31% fewer than in 1997 when older driver fatal crash involvements peaked in the United States.
Why the drop?
Safer vehicles and healthier seniors who are better able to survive crashes better are two important reasons for the fatality and injury declines, says Anne McCartt, senior vice president for research at IIHS and a co-author of the study.
Side airbags benefit older drivers more, and seatbelts have improved to hold people in place better and not injure them, for example.
Older drivers drove more miles than middle-age drivers from 1995 to 2008, the IIHS study found. This is especially true for drivers 75 and older, who lifted their average annual mileage by more than 50% during those years.
Increased driving may indicate that older drivers are remaining physically and mentally comfortable with driving tasks, according to the study.
More older drivers
Expect to see a lot more older drivers on the road in the next 35 years. The U.S. population is getting grayer, with the 80 and older population expected to triple to 31 million by 2050, according to U.S. Census data.
Also by 2050, the population of adults 70 and older is expected to reach 64 million, comprising 16% of the U.S. population, compared with 29 million, or 9% of the population, in 2012.
More older drivers are also holding on to their driver’s licenses longer, with the number of licensed drivers 70 and older rising 30% during 1997-2012. The percentage of older people who were licensed rose from 73% to 79%, with licensure rates increasing more with age.
Common impairments for older drivers
More older drivers are holding onto their driver’s licenses longer, and better at deciding when they shouldn’t drive, McCartt says.
“Older drivers do tend to self-regulate, if they’re aware they have impairments,” she says, such as vision problems that can make driving at night more difficult, or avoiding unfamiliar roads or driving during high-traffic times.
Memory loss and physical mobility problems can also make driving difficult for older drivers. Mobility issues could require an older driver to take more time to look around, and slower reaction times can require earlier braking, says Steve Dziadik, owner of Driving School of Florida.
“Your reaction time changes over your lifetime,” Dziadik says.
Dziadik says seniors come to his school because they’ve failed their driving test, even after 50 years or so of driving without getting a ticket. Often their first problem is not admitting that they have a problem driving, he says.
“These people have been doing this for so long that they really don’t know what they’re doing wrong,” he says.
A common error, Dziadik says, is not stopping completely behind the white line at a stop sign, which can lead to failing a driving test. Too many drivers don’t understand that the white line is meant to protect the crosswalk, and a rolling stop isn’t enough.
“Nobody out there has a death wish,” Dziadik says. “But unfortunately we’ve let our society dumb down in terms of driving, and everyone thinks that because they have a five-star car they’re safe while driving.”
One advantage older drivers have over young ones is they have a higher skill base from driving for so long, but it can hurt them too if they’ve picked up bad habits. Avoiding parallel parking because it’s difficult to do, for example, can lead to a DMV test failure in Florida, Dziadik says.
Florida drivers have five chances at a driving test, and then have to wait a year before taking it again, he says. That can be a long time for an elderly person who doesn’t have another way to get around town.