Oldest Drivers Are Not More Dangerous Drivers - To Others

It seems intuitive – aren’t older drivers more dangerous than younger drivers?  My mother-in-law is 87 and continues to drive, even though she caused a pretty serious accident several years ago that left her badly bruised, and with numerous broken ribs.  To recap, she had a green light and turned left into oncoming traffic, not realizing that she did not have a green arrow.  An oncoming car broadsided her and totaled her car; fortunately, the other people were not seriously injured.

I hoped the insurance company would refuse to insure her after that and that the problem would be out of our hands.  Unfortunately, they have not canceled her insurance, and she continues to make short trips near her home.

I worry that she will injure herself – but like it or not, the choice to put herself at risk is her decision.  My bigger fear is that she could cause injury to someone else.  So, since June is National Safety Month, I researched whether older drivers cause accidents, especially accidents involving fatalities, at a higher rate than younger drivers.  I was sure the data would show this was the case.

Surprisingly, I was wrong.  But you have to read the findings carefully.

A VOA (Voice of America) article I found made a highly misleading claim that older drivers are killing people.  The title shouts, “Elderly Drivers Cause More Deadly Crashes than Teens,” and states (without giving a specific citation) that the data came from a study done by Carnegie Mellon University.  But I couldn’t find any data to back up that statement.  I did find a Carnegie Mellon study, but I don’t believe it is the one referred to in the article.

The VOA article also states, “Study finds fatality rate for drivers over 85 is four times higher than for teenagers.”  However, that’s a different subject.  Dying in an accident is completely different from causing a fatal accident.  What is the real story?

I finally found the study that I believe is the basis for numerous articles on seniors and driving:  “Risks Older Drivers Pose to Themselves and to Other Road Users,” done by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.  I then found a study just published in June 2017, “Rates of Motor Vehicle Crashes, Injuries, and Deaths in Relation to Driver Age, United States, 2014 – 2015,” also done by the AAA Foundation.

The first study separated drivers into the 85+ category, and assigned “fault” to the accidents, both of which were important to me, so this article is based on that study.  However, the June 2017 study – where ‘driver’ may or may not mean ‘person at fault,’ has very similar findings.

In the “Risks Older Drivers Pose” study, I looked at both issues in the study title – a) are senior drivers a risk to others, and b) are senior drivers a risk to themselves.  Because seniors make shorter trips, here I’m using the data that compared accident rates for the number of trips taken, rather than the number of miles driven.  The data are a little different, but the findings are similar.

Let’s start with question a) – DO elderly drivers pose an increased risk to others?  The short answer is: Not really.  Even at their highest rate (for drivers 85 and older), the fatality rate for accidents caused by seniors is the same or lower than that for drivers 25 years old and under.  The data indicate that even through the age of 84, older drivers caused fatalities to occupants of other vehicles and non-motorists at about the rate that 30-year-olds do.  That is simply not a major danger.  We’re certainly not stopping 30-year-olds from driving, and drivers younger than 30 are far more likely to cause the death of others than are 84-year-olds.  Even drivers 85+ in the aggregate are not among the most unsafe group of drivers.

So this data gives a clear indication that, while drivers over 75 start to be more dangerous to others than they were when they were between 35 and 75, they still are far less dangerous than – especially – drivers under 25.  So the answer is:  older drivers are not a serious risk to others, compared to many of the drivers on the road.

Question b) – are senior drivers a danger to themselves – is a different story.  This question gets a qualified ‘yes,’ although this is only accurate when the driver is quite elderly.  In accidents where the driver was at fault, a 76-year-old driver was as likely to die in the accident as a 26-year-old driver.  An 83-year-old driver is as likely to die as a 23-year-old driver is, in an accident caused by the driver.

After the age of 83, driver fatalities rise significantly.  However, the AAA study I looked at here cites a study, published in the Traffic Injury Prevention journal, that found that increased fatalities in elderly drivers are more common because the drivers are frailer, and injuries sustained in an accident are much more likely to result in death than they would be, were the driver younger.

What about passengers in cars driven by seniors?  The fatality rate for them remains low – about the same as for passengers in cars driven by 25-year-olds, and rising very slowly – until the driver is older than 84.  When the driver is 85 or older, the fatality rate rises to the level of someone riding in the car with a 23-year-old driver.

The AAA study summary states, “Relative to other age groups, drivers aged 85 and older face the highest risk of their own death, whereas teens pose the greatest risk to passengers, occupants of other vehicles, and non-motorists.”

The Traffic Injury Prevention study cited in the AAA article stated:  “Older driver motor vehicle crashes are not a significant threat to other road users in vehicles or as pedestrians.  It is the older drivers and their vehicle occupants who are at higher risk of dying when in a crash. “

The takeaway is twofold.  First, elderly drivers are not particularly likely to cause an accident that injures or kill others, though after 85 the risk does rise.  Their children should be on the alert, but not overly concerned.

Second, seniors 80 or older should know that if they drive, their risk of dying if they are in an accident is high, and rising quickly, and that passengers in their cars are also at risk.  Car accidents are life-threatening to seniors in a way they were not when those seniors were younger.  Focusing on how to make driving safer for seniors – or more importantly, how to make crashing less deadly for them – should be a focus of public safety advocates.