Crash rates for drivers in their 70s (that includes me) are now less likely to be involved in a fatal crash than those in their prime working years, a new Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) study has found. That’s a remarkable reversal for a generation of drivers once thought to be an outsize threat to themselves and others.
The number of older drivers has grown rapidly over the past two decades. But 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, according to an article in the IIHS’s October, 2020 edition of Status Report.
Historically, older drivers were more likely to crash than other age groups, and they were less likely to survive if they did crash.
For the new study, IIHS researchers compared trends among drivers 70 and over with drivers ages 35-54. 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,” says 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.” At the same time, 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.
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. Infrastructure changes such as making traffic signs easier to see and converting intersections to roundabouts may have had an impact as well.
Per mile traveled, both fatal crashes and police-reported crashes of all severities rose substantially for middle-aged drivers in recent years and declined for drivers 70 and over. As a result, septuagenarians had fewer police-reported crashes per mile than middle-aged drivers for the first time in 2017.
Looking at the number of driver deaths per 1,000 police-reported crashes, the researchers found substantial improvements for all but the oldest drivers between 2009 and 2017, following little change over the previous decade.
So, if you are in the older driver category, this study should be good news for you. Congratulations on the improvement, and, please keep up the good work.