The Washington Post and the associated press
Older drivers have long been considered unsafe drivers, hindrances in a fast-paced society. But new studies show that seniors behind the wheel are a greater threat to themselves than to their fellow travelers.
The studies, released Tuesday by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which represents major auto insurers, show that older drivers have a higher death rate than other groups because they are more susceptible to injury, not because they have more accidents.
The research, the first the institute has done on elderly drivers, was designed to look at the experience of older drivers and the safety problems they might present for society. The number of people older than 65 is expected to double to 70 million in the next 30 years as the baby boom generation hits retirement age.
"The general perception is that older drivers are a menace on the road," said Susan Ferguson, senior vice president for research at the institute and one of the authors of the studies.
Just this week, an Oregon legislative panel will consider authorizing new state Transportation Department positions to experiment with screening older drivers for impairments, which could lead to more elderly drivers being called to motor vehicles offices for tests and having their driving privileges restricted or ended.
"I think the bottom line of the study is that they are really not a menace to anyone but themselves," Ferguson said. "We should be paying attention to this issue and thinking about ways to improve the safety of the vehicle," including the seat belts and air bags.
The studies show that older drivers kill fewer motorists and pedestrians than any other age group and have the lowest crash rates per licensed driver.
The study used federal statistics from the National Personal Transportation Survey for 1995, the latest year available. It showed that people over 65 accounted for 17 percent of the population and 14 percent of licensed drivers. Older drivers were involved in 8 percent of police-reported accidents, but made up 13 percent of the drivers in fatal crashes.
Ferguson said this trend is expected to continue as the statistics are updated.
Younger drivers age 16 to 24 had the highest accident rate, more than double the rate for older drivers. At the same time, they had fewer fatalities. The accident rate for younger drivers begins to level off at about age 30, according to the studies.
Older drivers now account for 1 in 6 accident fatalities. As the elderly population grows, that number is expected to increase to 1 in 4.
Statistically, the crash rates for older drivers are lower than for other drivers because fewer of them are licensed to drive and they drive fewer miles. They also tend to stay off the roads during busy rush hours and at night.
"They tend to screen themselves," institute spokesman Russell Rader said.