Older Drivers Involved in Fewer Fatal Crashes

Two new Insurance Institute for Highway Safety studies show crash deaths among drivers 70 and older fell by 21 percent from 1997 to 2006, reversing what had been an upward trend, even though the number of Americans in that age group was rising by 10 percent. The second of the two studies found older adults self-limit how much they drive as their vision, mobility, and other cognitive skills decline.

Earlier research predicted fatal crashes involving older drivers would rise as their population grew. Older people now keep their licenses longer, drive more miles, and are a bigger proportion of the population than in past years, IIHS said, and per mile traveled, crash rates and fatal crash rates increase starting at age 70 and rise markedly after 80. "These trends have raised concerns about older drivers in fatal crashes. Their fragility makes them vulnerable to getting hurt in a crash and then to dying from their injuries. Physical, cognitive, and visual declines associated with aging may lead to increased crash risk," the group noted.

"The findings are a welcome surprise," said Anne McCartt, IIHS senior vice president for research and an author of the new studies. "No matter how we looked at the fatal crash data for this age group — whether by miles driven, licensed drivers, or population — the fatal crash involvement rates for drivers 70 and older declined and did so at a faster pace than the rates for drivers 35-54 years old."

Drivers 80 and older had the most significant decreases. IIHS said fatal crash rates dropped among older drivers for most types of crashes, dramatically for crashes at intersections. "The large drop in intersection crashes is especially important because Institute and other studies have shown that older drivers are overrepresented in multiple-vehicle crashes at intersections," McCartt said. "The data don't allow us to point to any one reason why older drivers' fatal crash experience has improved. Some drivers may have benefited from newer and safer vehicles, and older people generally are more fit than in years past, with better access to health care."

The second study is ongoing; it examines how older adults restrict their driving in response to declines in their health, mobility, vision, and memory. Researchers recruited drivers 65 and older in three states who were renewing their licenses between November 2006 and December 2007. Most said driving themselves was their primary way to travel, and fewer than 1 percent said they'd been advised by family, friends, or a doctor to give up driving. The oldest drivers were more likely to say they limited their own driving, but the percentage who said they limit their driving rose with each added degree of impairment, IIHS said.

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