IIHS: Healthier and with Safer Cars, Old Drivers a Shrinking Risk

Happy elderly coupleLet’s call this the tsunami that never made it ashore.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) recently took stock of the “silver tsunami” in a report about older drivers who — despite their increasingly larger share of the U.S. driving population — aren’t endangering the nation’s roadways.

Baby boomers, now crossing into their 70s, are a big portion of the population of older Americans dubbed the “silver tsunami.”

And though baby-boomer drivers are driving more, they aren’t raising alarms with their crash and fatality figures, according to the Institute’s report, called “Trends in Older Driver Crash Involvement Rates and Fragility.”

Those baby boomers aren’t alone. Anne McCartt, a study co-author and senior vice president for the Institute, said that crash figures among even the oldest drivers have “been on a downswing” in recent years.

The IIHS attributed the trend, which began in the mid-1990s, to general improvements nationwide to car safety and well-being among the elderly.

“This should help ease fears that aging baby boomers are a safety threat,” McCartt said in a statement.

Crash, Fatality Numbers Shrink Despite More Driving

Older motorists drive fewer miles compared with other age groups. However, according to the report, a seven-year stretch between 1995 and 2001 showed that their average annual mileage increased by a larger percentage than for middle-aged motorists.

And more older drivers are licensed now. The IIHS found in its report, which studied figures between 1997 and 2012, that nearly 4 out of every 5 older people were licensed in 2012. In 1997, it was under 3 out of every 4.

During that period, the number of older drivers killed in fatal crashes was at its highest in 1997, at 4,823.

In 2012, it was 3,616, the third-lowest fatality count during that period.

The Institute further broke down the decreases for “fatality crash involvement” among older drivers between 1997 and 2012:

  • Drivers ages 70-74: 36 percent
  • Drivers ages 75-79: 46 percent
  • Drivers 80 years and older: 49 percent

When categorized by vehicle miles traveled between 1995 and 2008, fatal crash involvement rates for older drivers dropped further than for middle-aged drivers, 39 percent to 26 percent.

The IIHS said that it found “similar declines” in injury crashes in that time period.

“Changes in travel patterns among older drivers” may have had an influence on figures, the Institute said in its report.

“The fact that older drivers increased their average mileage during 1997-2012 may indicate that they are remaining physically and mentally comfortable with driving tasks,” the IIHS said. “When older adults reduce their trips, there’s evidence that it is often because they are self-regulating their driving in response to impairments.”

In addition, the Institute cited larger traffic trends during the nation’s economic recession, when there were fewer licensed U.S. motorists who drove fewer miles.

A Decade-Old Concern Dispelled

The silver tsunami’s forecast was much different more than a decade ago. At that time, the IIHS published a report “expressing concern about the risk of having so many people 65 and older on U.S. roads.”

The report, titled “Older Drivers Up Close: They Aren’t Dangerous, Except Maybe to Themselves,” warned against possible hikes in fatality figures among older drivers who “injure more easily than younger people.” The 2001 article even kicked off with an “outraged” Ann Landers, the famed advice columnist, who addressed the topic of drivers she said were “semi-capacitated.”

According to the IIHS, the “predicted problem hadn’t shown up in fatal crash data” a half-decade later. And when the Institute revisited driver fatality numbers in 2008, they found that older drivers were actually bucking the prediction.

The titles of follow-up reports on older-driver fatality data were decidedly different than in 2001: “Older Drivers’ Fatal Crashes Trend Down” in 2008 and “Older Drivers Aren’t Causing More Crashes Than They Used To” in 2010.

The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration also cite dropping crash and fatality figures among older drivers.

In a November 2012 newsletter, the IIHS reviewed findings from its partner, the Highway Loss Data Institute (HLDI), in which researchers predicted that an increase in older drivers would not contribute to an increase in car insurance claims under collision coverage.

Older drivers seeking resources about driver training programs, exercises and tips can find them at the following links:

About Charles Nguyen
Charles Nguyen is an enterprising journalist who reported for Patch.com and the Desert Dispatch and was the editor in chief of the Guardian (the twice-weekly newspaper at the University of California, San Diego) before coming to Online Auto Insurance News.

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