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New study shows drivers in their 70s are actually safer than some

We have generally believed that older drivers are somewhat lacking in safe driving skills. The perception is that they drive so slow and carefully that they actually put others at risk. Or, physical or cognitive problems keep them from adequately monitoring the road and the traffic around them.

This was thought to be a growing problem, as the number of older drivers has risen quickly over the past couple of decades. However, there was no large spike in crashes once that happened. Why not?

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety decided to find out why not. First, they looked at the statistics, and those showed that drivers in their 70s are involved in fewer fatal crashes per licensed driver than their middle-aged peers. Indeed, they are involved in fewer police-reported wrecks per miles driven than middle-aged people.

There are several reasons why this might be the case. One is that people in their 70s are generally in better health than aged people in the past. Another is that vehicles have gotten safer, so people are more likely to survive crashes than would have been the case in the past. And third, there have been infrastructure and licensing improvements that may have helped prevent a "silver tsunami" of crashes among people in their 70s.

How did the study work?

The researchers compared trends among drivers in their 70s to those involving drivers between the ages of 35 and 54. They examined fatal crash reports and sorted them based on involvements per 100,000 licensed drivers and by vehicle miles traveled. They pored over police-reported crashes per miles traveled and the number of drivers killed per 1,000 crashes, as reported by police.

The total number of licensed drivers aged 70 and over grew nearly twice as fast between 2010 and 2018 as it had in the prior decade. At the same time, the annual miles driven by those 70 and older also grew.

Between 1997 and 2018, fatal crash rates per licensed driver dropped by 43% among drivers 70 and older. That compared favorably to a decline of 21% among drivers 35-54. However, most of those reductions took place during the first half of the 20-year study period. In the second half, the crash rate among older drivers stayed steady, but the rate among middle-aged drivers increased.

The crash rates as measured by vehicle miles traveled and as reported by police confirmed these trends.

In fact, the researchers expect the crash rate among older drivers to continue to drop. This is because older drivers tend to hold onto their vehicles longer than do younger people, meaning that safety improvements don't get to them as quickly.

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