Drivers in their 70s are now less likely to be involved in a fatal crash than those in their prime working years, according to a new study from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).
Researchers say that, while the number of older drivers has grown rapidly over the past two decades, better health and safer vehicles, as well as possible benefits from infrastructure improvements and changes to licensing policies, have prevented an accompanying spike in crashes. Not only do drivers in their 70s now have fewer fatal crashes per licensed driver, but they also have fewer police-reported crashes per mile traveled than middle-aged drivers.
“Although efforts to address the ‘silver tsunami’ were largely ad hoc, in hindsight what we ended up with was a systems approach,” said IIHS President David Harkey. “And it worked.”
Historically, older drivers were more likely to crash than other age groups, and they were less likely to survive if they did crash. In 1988, the National Academies warned of a potential road safety crisis on the horizon. A decade later, fatal crashes involving older drivers peaked at more than 4,800 in 1997.
For the new study, IIHS researchers compared trends among drivers 70 and over with drivers ages 35-54, looking at fatal crash involvements per 100,000 licensed drivers and per vehicle mile traveled, police-reported crash involvements per vehicle mile traveled, and the number of driver deaths per 1,000 police-reported crashes.
The number of older licensed drivers rose almost twice as fast from 2010 to 2018 as it had in the previous decade, while older drivers’ average annual mileage also continued to grow.
“Improvements in healthcare mean that older Americans are remaining active and staying in the workforce,” said Jessica Cicchino, IIHS Vice President for Research and a co-author of the study. “It follows that they’re not only keeping their licenses longer but also driving more miles.”
Researchers highlight that improved health means older drivers are less likely to crash because the onset of problems like failing eyesight and impaired cognitive function is delayed. Seniors who are in better shape are also more likely to survive if they do crash. In addition, vehicles have gotten safer, too. The proportion of registered vehicles that earn good ratings in IIHS crash tests increases each year, and safety innovations like side airbags have been especially beneficial for older drivers.
For drivers 70 and over, fatal crash rates per licensed driver fell 43 percent from 1997 to 2018, compared with a decline of 21 percent for drivers ages 35-54. However, virtually all those reductions occurred during the first half of the study period. More recently, fatal crash involvements per driver remained steady for older drivers, while those of middle-aged drivers increased.
Though they’re healthier than ever, drivers 70 and over are still more fragile than younger people, so they’re more likely to die than middle-aged drivers if they do crash. The age of the vehicles they drive may be another factor.
“Older adults hold onto their vehicles longer, so it takes longer for them to reap the benefits of safety advancements,” Cicchino added. “That means we’re likely to see survival rates continue to improve as these advancements work their way into the U.S. fleet.”