But according to new information released this week by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), they’re getting safer—much quicker than middle-age drivers.
The IIHS observes that the rate of fatal crashes—as well as the rate of reported severe crashes—for those 70 and older has declined significantly from 1997 to 2009.
The most pronounced decline was for those 80 and older. In that group, the fatal crash rate dropped by nearly half, while it fell 23 percent for those age 35 to 54.
“If the crash trends of drivers 70 and older had mirrored the experience of middle-age drivers, we estimate that about 10,000 additional older drivers would have been in fatal crashes during 1997-2008,” said Anne McCartt, Institute IIHS senior VP for research in the organization’s latest Status Report newsletter.
Overall, looking at collision stats from 13 states, the IIHS found that injury crash rates fell by 34 percent for those 80 and older, from 1997 to 2005, while they fell by 16 percent for those 35 to 54. Property damage claims went down, too, for the oldest drivers compared to middle-age drivers.
It’s a bit surprising, because the number of older drivers is increasing, and older drivers are holding on to their licenses longer. During that period, the percentage change in licensure rates increased by nearly 20 percent for those age 70 to 74, nearly ten percent for those 75-79 years old, and about five percent for those 80 and older. Overall, 78 percent of those 70 and older have a driver’s license. By comparison, the licensure rate of those age 35 to 54 has dropped slightly during the same period.
What’s a possible reason why? The IIHS suggests that it might be that older drivers are policing their own driving. Through a smaller Institute study of 500 people age 70 and older in Iowa—a state where restrictions can be imposed if a driver is identified as unfit—it found that a significant portion of drivers were limiting night-driving or high-speed highways.
Some states have become stricter about renewals, which might have helped. In nine states, vision tests are required for older drivers renewing, and in seven states don’t allow licenses to be renewed electronically or by mail.
“With or without state action, it looks like older people are doing a good job of addressing their own driving abilities,” McCartt said.
The odds have changed for older drivers as well. In 1997, those age 70 or older were about 3.5 times as likely as those 35 to 54 to be fatally injured. In 2005, it had dropped to three times.
The data doesn’t necessarily suggest that older drivers are becoming better drivers. Of course, it might also be that older drivers are healthier than they were before, suggests the IIHS, or that they’re reaping the advantages of improvements in auto safety. Either way, it’s likely that the insurance-funded IIHS will continued to keep an eye these issues—and on the data.
For more information, visit the IIHS page on state-by-state licensing regulations.