Caring Currents

Older Drivers Crash Less -- But Here's Why You Shouldn't Quit Worrying

Last updated: Jan 14, 2009

The day our car was slammed into by a big truck
Image by vieux bandit used under the creative commons attribution license.

Wondering how safe Mom, Dad, Grandma, or Grandpa is behind the wheel these days? There's a good news - bad news report out on older drivers from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a respected nonprofit funded by the auto insurers to help curb traffic deaths and injury. Fatal car accidents involving drivers 70 and up have dropped 20 percent in the past 10 years.

Yes, dropped -- even though there are 10 percent more drivers in that age group today, who are keeping their licenses ever longer. Some theories why: These "newer old" are healthier overall (so they're sharper on the road and hardier in the event of a crash), they wear seat belts more often, they drive safer cars, and they better understand the risks of aging and driving, which makes them more likely to give up driving voluntarily.

What's the "bad news" part? I can think of 4 dangers:

  1. There's a risk that those having qualms about a parent's or grandparent's vision or reaction time behind the wheel might hear a report like this and second-guess themselves into thinking they're overreacting.
  2. Family members in denial about age-related changes may use such facts to shush other family members' legitimate concerns.
  3. Drivers themselves may hide behind the numbers to deny their own risk. ("Whaddaya mean I cut that guy off? Are you stereotyping me?!")
  4. Even though traffic death rates are falling, they're still happening. Per mile traveled, crash rates and fatalities increase starting at age 70 and rise markedly after age 80, according to IIHS. And I know plenty of 90-plussers still at the wheel -- though I wouldn't call them all 100-percent mentally and physically sharp.

So while we don't want to permanently park people based on how many candles deck their birthday cakes, we also can't ignore a responsibility to speak up or take action when they're steering into danger.

It's no fun. But at least there are proven ways to assess someone's ability to drive, keep her safe, and intervene when necessary. And knowing such resources are available to help, when needed, is all good news.