Older Vehicles Put Seniors at High Risk of Car Accident Fatalities

Senior driver
Senior drivers tend to value well maintained older cars with low mileage to the newer vehicles with loads of safety features. Mick Tinbergen/Unsplash

Americans in their 70s and 80s are driving more and crashing less often than in past decades according to two recent studies by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). However, when they crash the outcome is more likely to be a fatality due to outdated safety features in the older vehicles these drivers tend to pilot.

The first study compared the vehicles driven by 1.5 million Florida drivers involved in crashes between ages 35-54 between 2014 and 2018. The other covered crashes for drivers ages 70 and older during the same time period.

Drivers 75 and older are about four times more likely to die than middle-aged drivers when they're involved in a side-impact crash and about three times more likely to die in a frontal crash, IIHS researchers discovered.

Those aged over 70 years old tend to drive older, smaller vehicles that are not equipped with important safety features, according to two IIHS studies.

The study of Florida crashes found that drivers in their 70s and older were significantly more likely to be driving vehicles that were at least 16 years old and substantially less likely to be driving vehicles less than 3 years old.

As the age of drivers increased, IIHS discovered that the drivers' vehicles were less likely to be equipped with electronic stability control (ESC) and head-protecting side airbags as standard features. These features have been made standard in newer vehicles.

The studies have found vehicles without ESC were associated with 37 percent higher odds of driver fatality for drivers 70 and over, while vehicles without standard head-protecting side airbags were correlated with double the odds of an older driver fatality.

By comparing the average fatality risk for the vehicles driven by drivers aged 70 and up and drivers ages 35-54, researchers determined that crash fatalities could be reduced by 3 percent for drivers in their 70s and 5 percent for drivers 80 and older if they drove vehicles with the same safety profile as their middle-aged counterparts.

Based on the crash data for 2019, that would translate to about 90 lives saved a year in Florida alone.

"Persuading older drivers to take another look at the vehicles they're driving could reduce crash fatalities substantially," says Jessica Cicchino, IIHS vice president of research and a co-author of both studies. "One big challenge is that, for those on a fixed income, cost often overrides other concerns."

The second study by IIHS surveyed 900 drivers in the two age groups from various states about the factors that influenced their most recent vehicle purchase. One reason older drivers have less safe vehicles is that they don't get the value of advanced safety features or good safety ratings, the survey found.

"All these vehicle characteristics have big impacts on crash survival rates, and older drivers are more often driving the least-safe vehicles by every parameter," says Cicchino. "This only gets worse as their age increases, since many older adults stick with a single 'retirement vehicle' for the remainder of their driving years."

Sedans and hatchbacks are the most common selection among older drivers. Along with vehicle design and safety features, vehicle size and weight are important factors in crash survival, as occupants of smaller vehicles are exposed to greater forces in collisions with larger ones.

The studies determined that drivers 75 and older were significantly less likely to drive vehicles with good ratings in the IIHS moderate overlap front and original side crash tests than drivers ages 35-54.

In all age groups, the studies found that most drivers agreed that a 10-year-old, well-maintained car with low mileage is just as safe as a new one despite most new vehicles offering a host of standard safety and driver assist technology that was not even available a decade ago. Older drivers who owned the newest vehicles often reported more than $75,000 in annual household income and were most likely to disagree with that statement.

"The older drivers who participated in the survey didn't appear to understand the value of today's vehicle safety features," Cicchino says. "At the same time, they perceive less need to replace their older vehicles because they don't drive many miles per year and think of low mileage as synonymous with overall vehicle safety."

Health, vision impairment, and driving skill were not evaluated as part of the study.