Conventional wisdom has long held that there are two groups of drivers to be wary of: teenagers and drivers over 70. A new study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) turns conventional wisdom on its head. The research group says its study reveals that drivers over 70 are less likely to be involved in a fatal motor vehicle crash than drivers ages 35 to 54.

The news is likely to be especially well-received in places such as Florida, with substantial retirement communities.

Fewer crashes of all types

The good news for older drivers doesn’t end there. Researchers also found that drivers in their 70s have fewer police-reported auto accidents of any severity than drivers in the 35-54 age group.

Even though the Baby Boom generation has pushed the number of older drivers higher than ever over the past 20 years, that growth hasn’t been accompanied by a spike in crashes.

Researchers credit a number of factors with older drivers’ improved traffic safety numbers, including improvements in health care and in designs of vehicles and infrastructure.

Crunching the crash data

For the new study, IIHS researchers analyzed several types of crash data for drivers 70 and over and drivers ages 35-54:

  • Fatal crash involvement per 100,000 licensed drivers
  • Fatal crash involvement per vehicle mile traveled
  • Police-reported crash involvement per vehicle mile traveled
  • Driver deaths per 1,000 police-reported crashes

From 1997 to 2018, fatal crash rates for drivers 70 and over per licensed driver fell 43. In that same period, the fatal crash rate for drivers ages 35-54 declined 21 percent.

Researchers said most of those declines took place in the first half of the two-decade study period. In the second half, the fatal crash rate for older drivers held steady, while the fatal crash rate rose for middle-aged drivers.

Traffic safety trends

The IIHS study also found that both fatal crashes and police-reported crashes of all types “rose substantially for middle-aged drivers in recent years and declined for drivers 70 and over.” When researchers put those numbers together, it meant that in 2017, for the first time ever, drivers over 70 had fewer police-reported accidents per mile than middle-aged motorists.

The number of driver deaths per 1,000 police-reported crashes dropped about 15 percent for drivers 35-54 and about 25 percent for drivers ages 70-79.

The overall improvements in traffic safety for older drivers are positive developments, of course. Better vehicle design (side airbags, especially) and infrastructure (including roundabouts) make driving safer for all of us, which is also heartening.