‘Retirement Vehicles’ Raise Crash Fatality Risk for Older Drivers

It may be time to suggest to your clients 70 and older that they spend the money for a new car.

It may be time to suggest to your clients 70 and older that they spend the money for a new car.

Recent research from the independent, nonprofit Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) shows drivers 70-plus tend to drive outdated cars that lack safety features. That finding and greater frailty contribute to older drivers having higher fatal crash rates per mile traveled than middle-aged drivers. The IIHS says drivers 75 and older are about four times as likely to die as middle-aged drivers in a side-impact crash and about three times as likely to die in a frontal crash.

The good news is that drivers 70 and older are healthier and involved in fewer fatalities than in previous years, even as their numbers have grown and they make up a bigger proportion of the population. According to IIHS, in 2019 a total of 5,195 people age 70 and older died in crashes, down 12% from 1997.

Cost Overrides Concerns

Although trends are positive, car accident deaths among older adults could drop further. “Persuading older drivers to take another look at the vehicles they’re driving could reduce crash fatalities substantially,” Jessica Cicchino, IIHS vice president of research and a co-author of both studies, said in a press release. “One big challenge is that, for those on a fixed income, cost often overrides other concerns.”

Two new IIHS studies show that drivers 70 and over tend to drive older, smaller vehicles that don’t have important safety features. The first study looked at 1.5 million Florida drivers involved in crashes between 2014-2018 and compared drivers age 35-54 with those 70 and older. The second study asked 900 drivers in those age groups from various states which factors influenced their most recent vehicle purchase.

Old Cars, Old Features

The crash study found older drivers were more likely than younger ones to be driving cars that were at least 16 years old. The older ones were also less likely to be driving a vehicle less than 3 years old.

The studies found that as driver age increased, their vehicles were less likely to have electronic stability control (ESC) and head-protecting side airbags as standard features. Vehicles without ESC were associated with 37% higher odds of driver fatality for drivers 70 and over, while vehicles without standard head-protecting side airbags were associated with double the odds of an older driver fatality. When they bought their current car, older drivers were less likely than younger ones to require blind spot monitoring, side or curtain airbags, and forward collision warning or automatic emergency braking (AEB).

Older drivers were also more likely to drive sedans and hatchbacks rather than midsize passenger cars or SUVs. “Along with vehicle design and safety features, vehicle size and weight are important factors in crash survival, since the occupants of smaller vehicles are exposed to greater forces in collisions with larger ones,” the release said.

The studies also found that drivers 75 and older were less likely than younger ones to be driving cars with good ratings in the IIHS moderate overlap front and original side crash tests.

The researchers concluded crash fatalities could be reduced by 3% for drivers 70 and older and 5% for drivers 80 and older if they drove vehicles with the same safety profile as their middle-aged counterparts. That would translate to about 90 lives saved a year, based on 2019 crash data, they said.

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