Surprising new research shows fatal crashes down for old drivers

January 24, 2009/fire

MOTOR MATTERS DOWN THE ROAD BY CHERYL JENSEN

Baby boomers don’t have to worry quite so much about their parents’ driving — or their own. Older drivers seem to be better drivers than previously thought. And if they are a danger to anyone, it is to themselves or their older passengers, according to a new study.
Despite older drivers increasingly taking to the roads, fewer died in crashes or were involved in fatal collisions during the period 1997 through 2006 than in prior periods dating back to the 1980s, according to a new Insurance Institute for Highway Safety study. The data researchers analyzed came from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System, a census of fatal crashes in the U.S.
Crash deaths among drivers 70 years and older fell 21 percent during the period studied, even though the number of people in that age group rose 10 percent. This is a reversal a trend that generally increased beginning in the early 1980s and peaked in 1997.
This is good news, since earlier Insurance Institute research predicted that older drivers would make up a substantially larger proportion of drivers involved in fatal crashes for several reasons.
One is that physical, cognitive and visual deficits that often occur as people age could lead to increased risk of crashing. Also, as people become more physically frail they are more likely to die from their crash injuries, despite using safety restraints. Government data show that 77 percent of all older occupants of passenger vehicles involved in fatal crashes were using seatbelts at the time of the crash. Researchers speculate that older drivers may have been helped by driving newer and more crashworthy vehicles, by better health, and by improved emergency response systems.
It is interesting, therefore, that these declines in fatal crash involvement for older drivers were much bigger than declines experienced by drivers in the 35 to 54 age group.
Although the reasons for these declines are not certain, another ongoing institute study suggests one possibility: Older adults may be increasingly limiting their own driving as they age and become more impaired.
While fewer people age 70 and over are licensed to operate a vehicle and they drive fewer miles per licensed driver than motorists age 20 to 69, aging baby boomers are now changing the picture.
Older drivers now hang onto their licenses longer, drive more miles and make up a bigger portion of the population than in the past. For example, the number of licensed drivers 70 and older increased from just fewer than 18 million in 1997 to more than 20 million in 2006. And the total miles these older motorists drive annually rose 29 percent from 1995 to 2001. Compare that to only a 6 percent rise among 35 to 54 year-olds.
The insurance institute study found fatal crash rates fell among older drivers for most types of crashes, and the decline was most dramatic when it came to crashes at intersections, although researchers don’t know why.
It is an important finding because earlier research done by the institute and others has shown that older drivers are over represented in multiple-vehicle crashes at intersections.
The problem with intersections is that drivers must keep track of many pieces of information at once; and older drivers have problems especially when turning left and failing to yield to another vehicle. In a study the institute did in 2007, drivers ages 70 to 79 who were involved in intersection crashes, which involved injuries but no fatalities, had problems telling how quickly an approaching vehicle was moving and whether they had enough time to proceed. The group of drivers 80 years and older just didn’t see the approaching vehicle.
Researchers think one way some older drivers lower their crash risk is to limit their driving. In an ongoing separate study, institute researchers are looking at the ways in which older drivers restrict their driving in response to their impairments.
In that study most drivers reported at least some impairment, and that the extent of the impairment increased with age. Only 26 percent of drivers age 65 to 69 reported having at least some type of problem with mobility, compared with 43 percent of drivers 80 years and older.
It was the oldest drivers, who were more likely to say they restricted their own driving. Drivers 80 and older were more than twice as likely as “youngsters” in the 65 to 69 age group to limit their driving by using strategies such as making fewer trips, traveling shorter distances, not driving at night, and avoiding driving in ice or snow and on the interstates.

Copyright, Motor Matters, 2009

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