While the American love affair with the open road may largely be a construction developed by the auto industry, there’s little doubt that Americans are bombarded with messaging about how essential cars and driving are to a feeling of freedom that’s linked with our national identity. It’s tough to ignore these messages.
The average American drives more than 13,000 miles every year, and for those who have long commutes to and from work, the figures are even higher. And for many of us, getting a driver’s license is a cherished rite of passage, as is buying our first automobile.
But regardless of how much we love (or hate) driving, for most of us, the day will come when the physical and mental decline associated with aging make us unsafe drivers. Nearly 1 in 5 of all drivers on the road today are over the age of 65, and the population in that age group has risen by more than 30% in just the past 10 years.
Are older people really bad drivers, as the stereotype suggests? In which states are older drivers associated with the most accidents? And how can you spot signs of a potentially dangerous older driver, whether in yourself or a loved one?
Seniors & Driving
About 42 million Americans 65 and older are licensed drivers, which represents an increase of nearly 60% since 1999. Not only are more people 65 and older driving than in years past, but more people in this age group are being killed in traffic accidents. Additionally, older people are outpacing the overall totals in many categories related to fatalities on the road, according to information from the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration.
In most cases, overall traffic fatalities, whether among those in passenger vehicles, bikers, cyclists or others, have fallen over the past decade, but in all of these metrics, we see huge increases among those 65 and older. This likely is owing largely to the major jump in the rate of older Americans holding driver’s licenses.
In just 2017 alone, nearly 7,000 people 65 and older were killed in traffic accidents, which accounted for 18% of all traffic deaths that year. There is some good news, however — between 2016 and 2017, traffic fatality rates fell across the board by about 1 percentage point, including for older Americans.
Older drivers accounted for about 14% of all drivers in fatal accidents in 2017 despite making up about 19% of the total number of licensed drivers.
While drivers are not always killed in accidents, about 4,248 older drivers died as a result of crashes in 2017. Let’s explore more about those crashes.
Those 65 and older are far more likely to die in accidents even while wearing restraints when compared to younger drivers.
States & Senior Drivers
About 7,000 drivers 65 and older were involved in fatal crashes in 2017, but there were major variations depending on the state, including the overall percentage in each state of senior drivers being involved in crashes and how fatal crashes involving senior drivers compare to fatalities involving younger drivers.
It shouldn’t be too surprising that by looking at raw numbers, we see that many of the highest-population states also have the highest number of older driver-involved fatalities, though it’s noteworthy that Tennessee appears in the top 10 despite being outside the top 15 in overall population.
Of course, a straight-up comparison of the numbers tells just one part of the story.
An apples-to-apples comparison of how frequently older drivers are involved in car accidents relative to the overall population shows us that only two states (Georgia and Tennessee) that appear in the overall top 10 also rank highly when it comes to the population-adjusted rate.
But this is also just one facet of understanding the prevalence of senior-involved fatal accidents. Another is what percentage of fatal crashes overall involve senior drivers.
Seniors often are the butt of jokes about bad drivers, but there’s another population group that also frequently causes concern — young drivers. The youngest licensed drivers, those 15-20, were involved in about 8% of all fatal traffic accidents, which is just under half the rate for drivers 65 and older.
But this trend doesn’t always hold up on the state level. In fact, in many states, younger drivers were involved in a far higher ratio of accidents than were senior drivers.
An incredible 51% of drivers in fatal accidents were between 15 and 20, while in Tennessee, those younger drivers aren’t involved in a statistically significant portion of the fatal crashes.
Too Old to Drive?
Often, a person doesn’t realize they’re no longer fit to drive until it’s too late and an accident, hopefully not a fatal one, has happened. Everyone is different, but the key to understanding if the normal aging process is making someone an unsafe driver is to simply observe their behavior.
- Are they having a tougher time than they used to with their hearing or vision?
- Do they lose their place in conversations more frequently?
- Are they having a difficult time with motor control and/or have their reaction times slowed?
- Do they drink regularly (meaning every day)?
It’s usually impossible to notice these signs in yourself, so it’s important to be open to what others observe about your behavior. Non-behavioral signs include unexplained dents or excessive traffic tickets.
A majority of states have laws regarding licensing of older drivers that often include more frequent license renewal, vision testing and other measures.
Maintaining complete independence for as long as possible usually means having access to a car and legal license to drive. But given the natural cognitive declines that occur in most people the older we get, it’s reasonable and prudent to take stock of how well we’re driving, not just how much.
It’s easy to think of cars as something that keeps us safe on the road, but the truth is that cars and road travel create enormous opportunity for tragedy, and it’s up to each of us to make sure we’re not contributing to that opportunity irresponsibly.
About This Report
We’ve linked directly to several data sources, but much of the information in this story came from one source. Information about traffic accidents and fatalities came from a series of National Highway Transportation Safety Administration reports released in March 2019 (older drivers) and February 2018 (younger drivers).
Additional information on state laws regarding licensing requirements for senior drivers came from AAA.
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