Study: Older people are driving more, having fewer accidents

By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Here is the stereotype: White-haired senior driver poking nervously along the highway, frustrating younger drivers in a rush to get past.

Here was the concern: Experts predicted crash rates would soar as America grew older.

Here's the reality: Older people are driving more, crashing less and their fatal accident rate has dropped by 37 percent.

The biggest drop of all -- 47 percent -- came among drivers over the age of 80.

This all emerged in a study released Tuesday by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, an insurance industry group whose research benefits from both federal highway statistics and data collected by the companies whose policies cover the cost of accidents.

While the numbers made the trend clear, they didn't provide a solid explanation for the striking difference between what was anticipated and what came to pass. Neither could the experts who compiled the statistics.

The same things that have factored in an overall decline in highway deaths -- safer vehicles, safer roads, more seatbelt use and fewer drunken drivers -- also applied to those 70 and above, but there had to be more.

The researchers compared the numbers for older drivers with a control group whose members were between 35 and 54, a range selected because those drivers have graduated from the age of risky behavior and have not yet reached the onset of age-related impairments.

The older drivers did far better than the control group.

The drop in fatal accidents among the 70 and older crowd was 14 percent steeper and the decline in non-fatal crashes was 11 percent lower.

"Issues relating to health must have a role in it, but it's hard to know just how yet," said Anne T. McCartt, co-author of the report. "We believe that there's been more self-restricting now that there's a lot more information out there on the subject. It's also possible that travel patterns for seniors have changed."

The population that has reached the 70 milestone is projected to grow from about 30 million to 67 million in the next four decades. Those who are 85 and older will increase from just under 7 million to 19 million during the same period, according to U.S. Census data.

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