As the baby boomer generation enters the senior years, it is critical and essential to find ways to lessen elderly drivers' frequency and severity of automobile accidents. Insurers, too, must find ways to deal with an aging population of drivers because categorically denying coverage to those over 75 is no longer a viable option.
During the next 30 years, the United States will face increasing challenges concerning the burgeoning number of senior drivers. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, there are 35 million Americans age 65 and older, approximately 13 percent of the population. By 2030, this figure will double to 70 million persons, projected to be 20 percent of the population. This trend is a major concern because drivers age 65 and older experience higher crash death rates per mile driven than all age categories, other than teenagers. In addition, many studies show that these drivers, particularly those age 80 and over, also pose higher risks to other persons on the road and pedestrians.
This issue is a multifaceted one, in which the goal is to provide a safe driving environment for all persons but also to recognize seniors' important need for independence, greatly enhanced by their automobiles. Fortunately, there are many measures society can take to strike the right balance. For example, proper treatment of functional impairments, including visual problems is a key ingredient. A reexamination of licensing laws for seniors is important in determining methodologies for seniors to keep their driver's licenses as long as safely possible. Improvements in roadway design and safety advances in vehicle design will also assist in reducing senior deaths on the highways.
Reviewing this issue from various angles is essential in developing solutions. This article focuses on some of the statistics surrounding older drivers and automobile accidents as well as recommendations to insurers that insure elderly drivers. For the full-length white paper on this topic, delving in much greater detail into the societal aspects, licensing laws, road/safety advances, and further research, see "Senior Driver Issues: Upcoming Challenges and Solutions."
Older Drivers and Automobile Accidents
Numerous studies have focused on senior driver involvements in automobile accidents. The conclusions are not always consistent, but the statistical datum generally shows a positive link between older drivers and higher fatality rates, primarily due to greater fragility in this age group. Other research has focused on the types of accidents seniors tend to be involved in and the kinds of functional impairments they often face. It is important to recognize, however, that many elderly drivers become aware of their limitations on their own and reduce their driving exposures accordingly. Automobile insurers should keep abreast of the latest analytical data on senior drivers and not categorically deem them unsafe.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), drivers 70 years and older account for approximately 9 percent of the U.S. population. However, these older drivers, who drive far less frequently than other age groups, still account for 12 percent of all traffic fatalities, 12 percent of all vehicle occupant fatalities, and 17 percent of all pedestrian fatalities.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) published a major study in 2002 concerning senior drivers and automobile accidents. IIHS calculated driver involvement rates for all police-reported accidents by age group, on a per capita, per licensed driver, and per vehicle-mile of travel for 1990 and 1995. The results indicated that driver crash involvement rates decreased with age when comparing younger drivers to middle age drivers, but automobile accident and death rates increased at age 70 and beyond.1
The American Automobile Association (AAA) Foundation for Traffic Safety published a 2004 study conducted by the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M that analyzed all injury accidents in Texas between 1975 and 1999. (This study consisted of a review of 4 million accident records.) According to the study, drivers age 65 to 74 are nearly twice as likely to die as a result of an injury accident as those ages 55 to 64. For motorists age 75 and older, the proportion increases to 2.5 times. For drivers age 85 and above, the proportion skyrockets to nearly 4 times.2
Functional Impairments and Accidents
Various studies indicate that senior drivers tend to become involved in certain types of automobile accidents. For example, because older people lose some of their functional capabilities, intersection-related crashes are relatively more frequent for this age group. In particular, left turns appear problematic for seniors. Research also indicates more difficulties for senior drivers when entering and exiting freeways. Also, as people age, their bodies become increasingly fragile and more subject to serous injury or death in automobile accidents. Senior drivers tend to experience more functional impairments—visual, cognitive, and physical—as compared to other age groups.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has noted that senior drivers with cognitive impairments, such as poor visual attention, memory, and reasoning, are at least twice as likely to be involved in a crash as compared to drivers without these types of impairments.3 Various tests have been used to study accident proneness in drivers suffering from the early and middle stages of Alzheimer's disease. Virtually all experts concur that driving is dangerous and unwarranted in persons with moderate to severe cases of Alzheimer's. There is a lack of consensus, however, concerning whether persons in the early stages of this disease should drive.
Poor physical abilities are another functional impairment some senior drivers experience. Several facets of motor skills for driving include strength; gross and fine coordination; range of motion of the head, neck, arms, and legs; and balance. One study found that range of motion is particularly important in avoiding auto accidents.4
Senior Driver Awareness and Adaptation
Most studies indicate that seniors tend to drive less as they age. An Ontario study emphasized that not only is exposure reduced overall, but high-risk exposure is reduced even more.5 Some senior drivers, particularly those with acute visual problems, make the strategic decision to stop driving. Others will successfully self-regulate their driving, by driving only during the day, only during non-rush hour times, and only on familiar streets while avoiding freeways.
Some surveys, however, indicate that older drivers are not always cognizant of a reduction in their visual, cognitive, and physical abilities. For instance, many do not link their visual problems with an increased chance of accidents. There are numerous treatments available to reduce visual, cognitive, and physical impairments of elderly drivers. However, elderly drivers often fail to recognize their declining vision, since symptoms can develop slowly. For example, senior drivers with cataracts, a slowly evolving disease common to this age group, experience a restriction in their driving mobility and an increased chance for accidents, especially at night. However, chronic eye conditions such as cataracts and refractive error can normally be remedied through surgery and corrective glasses or contacts.
Elderly Driver Licensing Laws
Although state Departments of Motor Vehicles (DMVs) have increased graduated driving privileges for younger drivers, less action has occurred concerning older drivers. Typically, measuring visual acuity is the most common test state DMVs use to monitor senior driver abilities. However, tougher renewal restrictions for older drivers, often called de-licensing laws, are gaining momentum in some states. Some of the areas the states are focusing on for elderly drivers include the following.
In-person renewal only
Shortened renewal length periods
Mandatory vision testing
Field driver testing
Simulating driving tests
Increased physician and medical advisory board involvement
Recommendations for Insuring Elderly Drivers
Personal automobile insurers need to regularly review the latest research on elderly drivers and automobile accidents. This relationship is complex and insurers would be remiss by assuming that elderly drivers, as a whole, are inherently dangerous and should pay much higher automobile insurance rates. This situation was often the case in the 1970s and 1980s when many insurers even refused to insure new automobile insurance applicants over age 75 or 80.
With elderly drivers often reducing their driving exposures voluntarily, the pure number of accidents, as the evidence suggests, are fewer than many other age groups. Insurers should look at rating plans that would decrease premiums for seniors who drive a very small number of miles (e.g., 2,000) per year. In addition, since seniors are less likely to speed, their chances of seriously injuring other parties is less, as compared to young operators. Individualized underwriting approaches to senior drivers, such as looking closely at prior accidents and violations and annual driving distances is the wise and fair approach for insurers to take.
Seniors need to maintain their independence, especially regarding their driving, as long as they can safely do so. When the elderly lose their driving privileges and their mobility, they often experience increased isolation, resulting in higher incidents of depression and other health problems. Thus, with the baby boomer generation approaching their senior years, this issue becomes even more critical and it becomes essential to find ways to lessen elderly drivers' frequency and severity of automobile accidents.
This effort should be pursued now, attacking this complex issue from a variety of angles. Proactively addressing this challenge in the near future and not in 30 years will result in great strides toward resolving one of the most important transportation and safety issues the United States will face in the coming decades.
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1 S. Lyman, et al., "Older Driver Involvements in Police Reported Crashes and Fatal Crashes: Trends and Projections," Injury Prevention 8 (2002):116-120.
2 AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, Older Driver Involvement in Injury Crashes in Texas (Washington, D.C.: 2004): 8.
3 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. "Older Drivers Have Some Problems Negotiating Intersections." Technology Transfer Series, no. 197 (April 1999): 1.
4 Cynthia Owsley, "Driver Capabilities," Conference Proceedings 27. Transportation in an Aging Society, November 1999 (Transportation Research Board, Washington, D.C., 2004): 48.
5 R.A. Marottoli, et al., "Development of a Test Battery to Identify Older Drivers at Risk for Self-Reported Driving Events." Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, 46 (May 1998): 562.