There’s a widely held belief that extends far beyond the city limits of Alpharetta, the state of Georgia and even the nation’s shores that older drivers pose greater risks on roads than other drivers. That belief began to erode a decade ago, however, when an extensive study by UK researchers showed that drivers age 70 and above are no more likely to cause motor vehicle wrecks than other drivers.
A new report from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) will undoubtedly alter perceptions of older drivers even more. The IIHS found that drivers in their 70s are less likely to be in a fatal wreck than drivers who are 35 to 54 years old.
Reasons for the safety shift
The IIHS says that older drivers were historically more likely to be in wrecks than other age groups and more likely to die if they did crash. As the Baby Boom generation has started to reach retirement age, the number of older drivers on the nation’s streets, roads and highways has grown rapidly over the past 20 years.
But with improvements in senior health (advances in medical technology, better diets, etc.), vehicle safety (especially airbags and better braking) and infrastructure design (roundabouts, better signage, etc.), a parallel spike in auto wrecks has been averted. Drivers 70 and above are now involved in fewer fatal wrecks per licensed driver, and fewer police-reported wrecks per mile traveled than drivers ages 35-54.
IIHS researchers compared drivers in their 70s with drivers 35-54 by crunching the numbers in several different data categories:
- Fatal wreck involvements per 100,000 licensed drivers
- Fatal wreck involvements per vehicle mile traveled
- Police-reported wreck involvements per vehicle mile traveled
- Number of driver fatalities per 1,000 police-reported crashes
Diving into the data
IIHS researchers found that fatal crash rates per licensed driver in the 35-54 age group dropped an eye-popping 21 percent from 1997 to 2018. But older drivers more than doubled that drop, with fatal crash rates plummeting 43 percent in the study period.
However, the organization noted that virtually all of those impressive reductions occurred in the first half of the period. In the second and most recent half, the wreck rate for older drivers held steady, while the rate for middle-aged drivers increased.
Fatal crashes per vehicle mile traveled and police-reported wrecks of all severities both rose in recent years for drivers 35-54, but declined for drivers in their 70s. The result of those opposing trends, a recent news report stated, was that “septuagenarians had fewer police-reported crashes per mile than middle-aged drivers for the first time in 2017.”
Researchers also found that during 2009-17, fatalities per 1,000 police-reported wrecks fell approximately 15 percent for drivers ages 35-54 and about 25 percent for drivers 70-79.
Let’s hope the IIHS report helps align perceptions of older drivers more closely with the facts and that all drivers use caution and common sense to improve safety in every age group.