Teen Drivers Die In Crashes. Old Folks Too. Who's Feared Most?

May 10, 2010

Did you see the recent Hyundai ad that touts the safety of its new 2011 Sonata by playing on your fear of out-of-control teens behind the wheel?

It cites the statistic that 3 million young adults will get new drivers' licenses each year--over a clip of a young woman being launched into the air on a sort of bungee slingshot contraption. Which looks like a whole lot of fun, frankly.

The ad raised some eyebrows over at our favorite data-analysis site, FiveThirtyEight.com. The author notes that young drivers clearly have the highest fatality rate per mile driven. It's four times as high, in fact, as the rate for drivers 30 to 60. But there's more to it.

That death rate declines steadily to about age 25, and stays low until drivers reach age 70.

And then it soars steeply, to the point where drivers 80 to 84 are as dangerous as 18-year-olds. And it keeps rising from there; drivers 85 and above have the highest fatality rate of all, fully one-and-a-half times as high as the 16-year-olds.

We'd add a couple of caveats of our own: First, unlike teens, car accidents represent less than 1 percent of deaths in the affected age group. Cancer, heart disease, and so forth are much more deadly.

Second, the fatality rate is mostly due to greater susceptibility to injuries, rather than a higher propensity to get into accidents. Or so says the IIHS in analyzing fatality data from the Department of Transportation.

Still, many states now have graduated licensing for teenage drivers. No less a body than the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) recommended raising the age for a driver's license to 17 nationwide, though that idea seems unlikely to fly.

Yet in a majority of states, a driver's license is granted for life. Mandatory retesting starting at age 60 has been proposed numerous times, but mostly beaten back by an outraged roar from the drivers who would have to be retested.

Why the disparity? First, most of us remember our teen years and--if pressed--will probably admit to pushing the limits, driving unsafely, and otherwise doing hazardous things behind the wheel.

Second, and probably more important, older U.S. citizens--ably organized by the American Association of Retired People (AARP)--form a potent political constituency.

They vote. They give money. They write letters. And they often take offense at any perceived slight or generalization about the abilities and behaviors of their age group, whether or not it's supported by actual data.

That makes criticizing old people the proverbial "third rail" in the media.

The role of age in the recent Toyota sudden-acceleration recalls wasn't touched by any major media. In fact, despite a graph showing that the bulk of the incidents ending in fatalities were reported by drivers aged 61 to 80, it was never even raised that we saw.

We're not saying young driversĀ  are blameless; far from it. We just think drivers over 60 deserve equal levels of scrutiny.


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