By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 22, 2010; A10
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.
The Federal Highway Administration determined that between the mid-1990s and early 2000s, the average number of miles driven by people 70 and older increased from 6,064 to 9,000 miles a year.
Part of the reason might be that more-mobile people are graduating into the ranks of the 70-and-over crowd, where the numbers holding drivers licenses swelled by almost 4 million between 1997 and 2008.
"If you think about the baby boomers and how they're changing things, maybe they're taking longer trips?" McCartt said. "In the past, older drivers have been less likely to drive on the interstates, even though they are safer than local roads. The baby boomers may be less reluctant to do that."
The suggestion that older drivers were modifying their driving habits was supported in a survey last year by the MIT AgeLab and the Hartford Financial Services Group. More than half of drivers 75 and older said they avoided driving at night and in bad weather.
Federal data from 2008, the most recent year available, indicated that 80 percent of fatal accidents involving older drivers took place in daylight.
The general improvement in the health and fitness of older people also might help explain why they escape more serious injury when they do crash and are better able to avoid crashing.
"As a general thing, people are healthier now," McCartt said. "And if you can see better or turn your head better, you are less likely to get involved in crashes."
The percentage of people 75 and older who said they had trouble seeing, even with glasses, declined by four points to 18 percent between 1997 and 2007, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.
McCartt said the institute had begun a long-term study of older drivers to better understand why they have defied predictions by becoming less accident prone.
"If you come up with a good reason, give me a call, and we'll research it," she said.