Ann Landers says "the mail keeps pouring in" on older drivers. Relating horror stories about crashes involving seniors at the wheel, she says she's "outraged" about these "semi-capacitated" drivers.
She's not alone, but is her concern warranted? By many measures, no. The nation's seniors don't drive much, compared with younger people, and they pose little threat to others on the road. But a problem does exist for the older drivers themselves. They injure more easily than younger people. They're more likely to die when they get injured. The result is that seniors have higher death rates per mile driven. As the population ages and older people drive more, they'll represent a bigger proportion of the total highway safety problem.
"To get a full picture of what's happening, you have to look at their crash experience from different perspectives," says Institute chief scientist Allan Williams. "Whether seniors have an excessive crash rate depends on how you measure it."
Seniors have very low crash rates per capita, especially compared with teenagers. One reason is that many older people don't drive, and those who do don't spend much time on the road. In 1995, drivers 65 and older accounted for 14 percent of licensed drivers but only 8 percent of miles driven.
"It's when you look at fatal crashes and measure them per mile driven, controlling for differences in exposure, that it becomes clear that older drivers are at increased risk," Williams explains. "Teenagers and older drivers have the highest per-mile fatal crash rates."
The main reason older drivers are dying is their physical fragility, not over-involvement in crashes. The chance a driver will die in a given crash increases starting at ages 60-64.
Even measuring death rates on a mileage basis, older drivers are better off than they used to be. Per-mile fatal crash rates have been declining, especially among the oldest and youngest drivers. This reflects improved vehicle and road safety plus changes in driver behavior.
So there's no public safety crisis now, but what about in the future? The number of people 65 and older is expected to double to 70 million by the year 2030. Licensure and mileage are going up among seniors. Seventy-five percent of people 65 and older were licensed to drive in 1995, up from 63 percent in 1983, while rates for drivers of other ages remained stable. Annual mileage increased 44 percent among older drivers, compared with 25 percent for the whole driving population.
This means that, by 2030, drivers 65 and older are expected to account for 16 percent of all crashes and 25 percent of all fatal crashes. The annual number of older driver fatal crashes is expected to more than double.
These projections come from a new Institute study of the present and future impact of older drivers. Because they represent a growing share of the highway safety problem, "it's important to make travel safer for the seniors themselves, who are more frail and whose abilities may be reduced," Williams says.