Elderly Car Crash Deaths Down in Last Decade

FRIDAY Jan. 23, 2009 -- Elderly drivers are safer drivers than they were a decade ago, a new study suggests.

Crash fatalities among drivers over the age of 70 fell 21 percent between 1997 and 2006, the researchers reported, despite a 10 percent rise in the number of those in this age group. Although the number of younger drivers (between 35 and 54) involved in fatal accidents is also on the downswing, the study authors noted the drop in driving death risk among those over 70 is significantly greater.

"Given the fact that the population of older drivers 70 and up has gone up, and that older drivers are staying licensed longer and driving more miles, you would normally expect to see more fatal crashes," observed study co-author Anne T. McCartt, senior vice president for research at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), in Arlington, Va. "But we're actually seeing the opposite. The number of older drivers being killed in crashes has gone down, and the fatality rate is dropping at a faster pace than for younger drivers."

The findings were published in the December issue of the IIHS journal Status Report.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 37 million Americans are currently aged 65 and up. This group constitutes the fastest-growing age bracket in the country.

To gauge how population trends translate into road fatalities, McCartt and her team crunched numbers on car crashes deaths between 1997 and 2006 that had been collected by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's Fatality Analysis Reporting System.

The data referenced all fatal crashes on public roads that resulted in the death of a driver or passengers within 30 days of an accident.

The authors found that more and more elderly individuals over 70 are getting behind the wheel, rising from about 18 million in 1997 to more than 20 million by 2006.

The over-70 set are also driving more. Between 1995 and 2001 alone, the miles they traveled increased by 29 percent.

Nevertheless, the research team found a reversal of a prior trend toward an increasing risk for death on the road among the elderly, noting that between 1975 and 1997, there had been a 56 percent climb in over-70 crash deaths. Between 1997 and 2001, however, fatal crash involvement among those aged 70 to 74 dropped by 26 percent. Those aged 75 to 79 experienced a 19 percent drop, while drivers over 80 experienced a 6 percent decline.

Specifically among elderly passengers, McCartt and her colleagues also found that a 106 percent rise in car crash deaths during the pre-1997 period had rolled over into a 23 percent drop during the study period.

By contrast, fatal crash involvement among the 35 to 54 set dropped by just 2 percent, while the drop among all drivers logged in at 4 percent.

"We're not sure what accounts for this," said McCartt. "We can point to the possibility that older drivers may be healthier and in better shape than they were in years past, and that could directly protect them in terms of not dying in a crash. But it also may lead to protective changes in their driving patterns so that, for example, they're more likely to be driving on safer roads -- like highways -- than they typically tended to in the past."

Doug Hecox, spokesman for the Federal Highway Administration, in Washington D.C., agreed that several factors account for the findings.

"Part of it is certainly attributable to the general American lifestyle being a healthier one," he noted. "But also cars themselves are now safer, with better restraint systems, better airbags and better braking, all of which is especially beneficial to older drivers who are a fragile community for basic physiological reasons."

"Roads themselves are also much more likely to be safer," Hecox added. "Tight dead man's curves are pretty much gone, and there are less pot-holes, fewer bumps. And even more basic is the results of our efforts over the last 10 to 15 years -- with a specific eye to older drivers -- to do everything we can to make signs brighter, more visible, and more legible at greater distances."

"That kind of focus," he observed, "may not address as directly the sort of high risk younger drivers face, as accidents involving novice drivers tend to result from going too fast and disregarding road conditions, that kind of thing. But ultimately, what we do for older drivers does help to safeguard the road for everybody."

Another study on elderly drivers, published in the first 2009 issue of The Cochrane Library, questioned the commonly held assumption that as people age, diminishing eyesight renders them more accident-prone, or that standard visual acuity tests help reduce elderly accident risk.

Led by Sayed Subzwari, a researcher from the British Columbia Injury Research and Prevention Unit, Centre for Community Health Research, in Vancouver, Canada, the study screened more than 4,500 published and unpublished research efforts on the subject, but found that none were reliable enough to establish a firm eyesight-accident link.

The authors further observed that eyesight testing charts typically used at most motor vehicle departments are not that sensitive and do not adequately screen for all eye conditions, such as glare sensitivity or cataracts. They called for more rigorous research, to assess the true effectiveness of elderly driver vision screening.

More information

For more on elderly drivers and safety, visit the U.S. National Institute on Aging.

Posted: January 2009


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