Canadian Underwriter

How seniors became a better auto risk than younger drivers

October 26, 2020   by Adam Malik

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Improvements in healthcare, vehicle safety, and infrastructure design have brought down senior crash fatality rates to the point where younger drivers are now a greater risk to die in collisions than seniors, a new study has found.

Historically, people aged 70 years and older were most likely to be involved in a crash and less likely to survive one, said the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). But now they’re they’re less of a risk than the middle-aged cohort (35-59 years old).

“That’s a remarkable reversal for a generation of drivers once thought to be an outsize threat to themselves and others on the road,” the IIHS report said of seniors. “Not only do drivers in their 70s now have fewer fatal crashes per licenced driver, but they also have fewer police-reported crashes per mile travelled than middle-aged drivers.”

In the study, which examined the driving behaviours of the 70-plus age group, IIHS explained that while there is an increasingly higher number of older drivers on roads, a number of factors seem to be keeping them from being in collisions in the first place, such as better health and safer vehicles. Other influences may include infrastructure improvements and changes to licencing policies.

For example, advances in healthcare have been able to keep seniors healthier longer — issues like failing eyesight and impaired cognitive function have been delayed. They’re also in better health nowadays, which makes them more likely to survive a crash.

The study looked at fatal crashes per licenced driver from 1997-2018. Drivers 70 years and older saw a drop of 43%, compared to a 21% decline for drivers aged 35-54.

“However, virtually all those reductions occurred during the first half of the study period,” the report pointed out. “More recently, fatal crash involvements per driver remained steady for older drivers, while those of middle-aged drivers increased.”

When looking at miles travelled, both fatal and police-reported crashes of all severities “rose substantially” for the younger driving group and actually declined for the older segment.

Canadian Underwriter asked the IIHS why that younger cohort of drivers were seeing such increases. The state of the economy plays a significant factor, explained Russ Rader, vice president of communications at the IIHS. When the global recession hit in 2008, miles travelled went down as unemployment went up. As people started working again over the last decade, those in the prime of their working years were driving more frequently.

“Riskier driving, such as speeding and alcohol impairment, also increase in economic recoveries. It’s middle-aged drivers rather than older drivers who are more likely to speed, and drink and drive,” Rader said.

Older drivers tend to self-regulate better and not expose themselves as much to higher speeds. “Those are some of the reasons that account for the improvements for drivers in their 70s in contrast to those in the prime working years,” he added.

“We’ve known for a long time that crash fatalities drop during recessions and rise with a strong economy,” said Jessica Cicchino, IIHS vice president for research and a co-author of the study. “These results suggest that this effect has been greater for middle-aged drivers than for drivers in their 70s.”

However, even though they may be healthier, those over 70 years old still have bodies that are more fragile than younger age groups. So there is still a greater risk they’re more likely to die in a crash. Also, they may hold on to their vehicles longer, so they may be driving a car that doesn’t have updated safety features.

“Older adults hold onto their vehicles longer, so it takes longer for them to reap the benefits of safety advancements,” Cicchino said, noting that their survival rates may increase even further if they upgrade their vehicle.


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