So says a new study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). The report, “Fit for the road: Older drivers’ crash rates continue to drop,” has a lot of good news for seniors who still get out there on the road – as well as others who share the road with them.
In part, the reason older drivers are less likely to become involved in auto accidents or to be seriously injured or killed when they do occur is because vehicles are safer than ever before and because older people are healthier than generations past. This trend began in the middle of the 1990s and continues, belying the belief that the roads are clogged with debilitated elderly drivers create a menace to others.
Fatal crash rates for older drivers – those aged 70 and older – have declined since 1977 faster than those for middle-aged drivers, those classified as being aged 35 to 54. The IIHS cautions that this decline appears to be leveling off.
Earlier research by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that, in relation to their share of the driving population, fewer other people were killed in crashes involving drivers ages 85 and older than drivers of any other age.
Why is the decrease in fatal crash rates for older drivers important? For one thing, the numbers of the elderly (aged 70 and older) are increasing and expected to more than double from more than 29 million currently to 64 million by the year 2050. That’s according to estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau.
And those Americans aged 80 or older will triple in size during the same time period, going from 12 million to 31 million.
It used to be that older drivers spent little time on the road, preferring to stick close to home for fear of being out on the road and experiencing any sort of driving difficulty. Some older people likely had a fear of getting stranded and being unable to get help. Others just contented themselves to home-based entertaining and activities.
The results of the IIHS report seem to point to the dual facts of vehicles becoming safer and older people being more physically fit as being somewhat responsible for the trend that’s been growing of older people putting more miles on the road. They’re getting out there, exploring, doing new things, visiting family and friends and broadening their social horizons.
In fact, according to the IIHS, older drivers increased their annual mileage by bigger percentages than middle-age drivers from 1995 through 2008. Among drivers aged 70 and older, the percentage increase in annual mileage was more than 50 percent during the same time period.
Using Sense to Self-Limit Time Driving
Still, as people age infirmities increase. This includes problems with memory as well as physical limitations. The report found that older drivers take certain self-impairments into account and learn to limit their driving to accommodate such impairments.
They may, for example, refrain from night driving, drive fewer miles or avoid driving in challenging situations, such as dense traffic or worsening weather conditions. Some states now require older drivers to appear in person to renew driver’s licenses so that the department of motor vehicles can verify the person is fit to continue driving or whether they require a restricted driving license.
Bottom line: There are more and more older drivers on the road. But, far from being considered a hazard on the road, they’re often as sharp and capable as the middle-aged driver in the lane next to them.