About fifteen years ago, traffic safety researchers expressed concern that traffic accidents were likely to increase as the nation’s aging population inflated the number of older drivers on US roads. Now, new data indicates those projections have been proven wrong.
According to an Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) study released on February 17th, drivers ages 70 and older are less likely to be involved in car crashes in comparison to previous generations. They are also less likely to be killed or catastrophically injured in cases where they are involved in accidents. The institute says this is because vehicles are becoming safer and seniors are generally getting healthier.
Researchers point out that the marked shift began taking effect around the mid-1990s. The trend change indicated that the growing ranks of aging drivers, due to baby boomers transitioning into their retirement years, aren’t making the nation’s roads deadlier. Overall, traffic fatalities across the US have declined to levels not before seen since the late 1940s. Auto accident rates have decreased for other driver age groups as well. But since 1997, older drivers have experienced bigger declines as measured by both fatal crash rates per driver and per vehicle miles driven in comparison to middle-aged drivers, defined by the study as ages 35-54.
From 1997 to 2012, fatal car crash rates per licensed driver fell a whopping 42% for older drivers and 30% for middle-aged ones, according to the IIHS study. In regards to vehicle miles traveled, fatal auto accident rates fell 39% for older drivers and 26% for those in the middle-age segment from 1995 to 2008. The greatest rate of decline was among motorists ages 80 and above, nearly twice that of the middle-age group and drivers ages 70 to 74. Anne McCartt, the institute’s senior vice president for research and co-author of the study, said:
‘‘This should help ease fears that aging baby boomers are a safety threat. No matter how we looked at the fatal crash data for this age group — by licensed drivers or miles driven — the fatal crash involvement rates for drivers 70 and older declined, and did so at a faster pace than the rates for drivers ages 35 to 54.”
Older Drivers are Logging More Miles but Adjusting Driving Habits for Safety
At the same time, older drivers have been putting more miles on the odometer than they used to, although they’re still registering fewer miles a year than the middle-aged driving segment. This is especially true for drivers age 75 and above – who raised their average annual mileage by more than 50%$ from 1995 to 2008. The IIHS study read:
‘‘The fact that older drivers increased their average mileage … may indicate that they are remaining physically and mentally comfortable with driving tasks.”
When older drivers reduce the frequency of their trips, it’s often because they sense their driving skills are eroding. They adjust their driving habits accordingly by driving less at night, during rush hour, in bad weather or over long distances.
By the year 2050, the number of people in the US ages 70 and older is expected to reach 64 million, equal to roughly 16% of the total population. At the end of 2012, there were 29 million people in the US ages 70 and over, or just over 9% of the total population.