As the number of older Americans grows, more of them are hitting the road—and doing it safely. Fatal crashes per licensed driver over the age of 70 fell 37 percent between 1997 and 2008, according to a new study released by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), a research group funded by the insurance industry.
For drivers over 80 the rate declined by almost half (47 percent). By comparison, the fatal crash rate for drivers 35 to 54 years old decreased only 23 percent. The rate of nonfatal accidents also dropped for older drivers, and the odds of an older person surviving a crash have increased.
“This is very good news,” says Anne McCartt, senior vice president for research at IIHS and a coauthor of the study. “It’s counter to what had been expected. Very often older drivers come into the news after there has been a bad crash, leaving the impression that they are becoming a menace on the roads. When you look at our study, that’s not the case.”
AARP’s senior vice president Elinor Ginzler agrees. “The new IIHS report reinforces what safety experts already know: Age by itself doesn’t cause car crashes.” Most older drivers are safe drivers and exercise personal responsibility—the report found that many older drivers were limiting their own driving at night and on high-speed roads, she says. “At a time of pervasive new driver distractions—like cellphones, texting and even DVD players—the self-awareness, attentiveness and judgment of most older drivers should reassure other drivers on the roadways.”
Besides the obvious reasons of safer vehicles and better roads, experts suggest several factors behind the good news:
- Older drivers voluntarily limit trips at night, in bad weather and in heavy traffic. Last year MIT AgeLab and the Hartford Financial Services Group released the results of a study that showed older drivers do the most “self-regulating”: 69 percent of drivers over age 75 compared with 58 percent of the 65-to-74 age group, and only 53 percent of 50- to 64-year-olds. “It’s clear that older drivers are able to gauge when they need to make different choices in order to stay on the road and to stay safe,” says Jodi Olshevski, a gerontologist with the Hartford.
- Many states are stepping in to ensure that older drivers are safer with special license renewal procedures, including shorter renewal intervals, a requirement to renew in person and additional testing. Check information on your state’s requirements for older drivers.
- Driving more may help keep older drivers safe. “We know that low-mileage driving—at any age—usually means a higher accident rate,” says McCartt. “So if older people are driving more, they are actually better off.”
- Older drivers are much less likely to speed, drive under the influence of alcohol, talk on a cellphone or text while driving.
“There is nothing to suggest that there are not older people out there who should not be driving, but as a group, they are not becoming a bigger menace,” McCartt says.
AARP offers a driver safety refresher course both online and in a classroom setting. Go to the AARP Driver Safety Program page for more information or to find a nearby class.
Cathie Gandel is a writer in Bridgehampton, N.Y.