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Older Drivers Can Be Safer Drivers — With Support

Auto safety features, better health, mean fewer problems on the road

A senior woman's hands holding the steering wheel of a vehicle

Moment / Getty Images

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Thirty years ago, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) sounded the alarm about the increase in aging baby boomers. Their numbers were growing, the institute noted, expressing concerns that would mean more auto crashes and fatalities.

But that didn't happen. In fact, a recent study found that as the population aged, there was actually a significant decline in fatal crashes among drivers 70 and older, especially compared to middle-aged drivers.

The results were striking. “We were surprised by recent findings,” says Jessica Cicchino, vice president for research at the IIHS and coauthor of the study that examined the statistics. “Over the last 10 years, even as the older population is growing, keeping their driver’s licenses and driving more miles, we haven’t seen the numbers in fatalities and crashes.”

The reasons are nuanced, however — it’s not just that older drivers are driving better. Safer cars and overall improvements in the health of this age group are contributing factors.

“It’s a success story that’s part of the result of efforts on multiple fronts,” Cicchino says.

Keys to safety

By 2030, there will be an estimated 53 million people over age 70, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. So the fact that older drivers are becoming safer on the road is significant.

The IIHS study, which analyzed crash data for older drivers from 1995 to 2018, looked at both crash involvement per licensed driver and fatal crash involvements per 100 million vehicle miles traveled. It compared trends among drivers 70-plus to those of drivers ages 35 to 54.

The study found an overall decline in fatal crashes for all licensed drivers and substantially greater declines for drivers ages 70 and older than for middle-aged drivers — 43 percent versus 21 percent.

Stay Safe on the Road

One way to keep older drivers on the road safely is to maintain their driving skills. AARP offers safe driving classes online to help.

Although experience counts when it comes to maneuvering a vehicle, middle-aged drivers are on the road more often and driving many more miles than older drivers. And though crash rates overall are higher for drivers over 70 than they are for middle-aged drivers due to increasing fragility and cognitive impairment, those rates are dropping significantly, the report found.

Teen drivers, of course, have the highest crash rates. “They take more risks and are less experienced,” Cicchino says. “But older people tend to be more fragile and are more likely to die when involved in a crash.”

So what’s keeping older drivers safer? On the human side, “older people have gotten healthier as a group,” Cicchino says. “They can safely drive longer as cognitive, visual and physical declines come later.”

On the vehicle side, cars have been made safer over the years. In particular, Cicchino points out the addition of side airbags. “These are useful in reducing the types of injuries older people suffer most.”

Older drivers tend to be involved in intersection crashes and “difficult perceptual situations like making a left turn, where you have to monitor oncoming traffic, and negotiating crossing pedestrians,” says Neil Charness, the William G. Chase professor of psychology and director of the Institute for Successful Longevity at Florida State University. Side airbags have helped keep people alive, he says.

Cicchino also points to the federal government’s efforts at improved guidance on roadway creation — making intersections easier to navigate, for example, by calling for roundabouts , which can eliminate right-angle crashes, and improving sign visibility.


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What to watch out for

But while roads and cars might be getting safer, older adults tend to hold on to their vehicles longer, driving older, smaller models that don’t have the latest safety features and offer fewer protections. Charness suggests that if “you can afford it, get a newer vehicle with an advanced driver system. Having that additional intelligence in your vehicle might compensate for some of the negative aspects of aging.”

New car technology that keeps drivers from drifting out of a lane, backup cameras, and pedestrian detection can all help an older driver remain safely on the road, Charness says.

Those technologies can be a challenge to master. AARP’s Smart Driver online course can help you learn more about your automobile’s high-tech safety features in addition to improving your driving skills.

“Safe driving can be a challenge for drivers of all ages. By taking a driver safety course like the AARP Smart Driver course, drivers will learn proven safety strategies so they can continue driving safely for as long as possible,” says Kyle Rakow, vice president and national director of AARP Driver Safety. “They also will pick up important tips on how to manage natural, age-related changes to vision, hearing and reaction time. All of these elements combined help to keep drivers healthy, safe, independent and confident when on the road.”

Stacey Freed is a contributing writer who covers remodeling, construction, lifestyle issues, education and pets. Her work has appeared in Beautiful Kitchens & Baths and This Old House on Forbes.com.