Drivers 65 and older are just one-third as likely as drivers 15 to 24 to cause auto accidents, and not much more likely than drivers 25 to 64 to cause accidents, according to a new RAND Corporation study.
"While driving ability declines with age for most people, those seniors who continue to drive appear to be safer drivers than the general public might think," said David Loughran, a RAND senior economist and professor at the Pardee RAND Graduate School who is the lead author of the study. "By far, it is the youngest drivers who pose the greatest risk to traffic safety."
Researchers found that in 2001, people 65 and older accounted for about 15 percent of all licensed drivers but caused only about 7 percent of all accidents in the United States. By contrast, people ages 15 to 24 accounted for just 13 percent of all licensed drivers, but caused 43 percent of all accidents.
Because senior citizens are generally in poorer health and more frail than younger people, drivers 65 and older are at much greater risk of serious injury or death when they do have an accident, according to the study by RAND, a nonprofit research organization. Senior drivers are nearly seven times more likely than younger drivers to be killed in a two-car accident.
"Seniors who drive pose a much larger risk to themselves than to others," Loughran said. "As the U.S. population ages, injury rates will increase -- not because seniors cause more accidents, but because seniors are more vulnerable to injury when they get into an accident."
It is projected that by 2025, drivers 65 and older will represent 25 percent of the driving population, compared with 14 percent in 2001. Previous research has shown that as people age, their driving ability becomes impaired.
"Seniors appear to make fairly sound decisions about when to reduce the amount they drive or stop driving altogether," Loughran said. "Not only do seniors drive much less than younger drivers, but they drive at safer times during the day and avoid poorer road conditions."
The study estimated accident risks by examining more than 330,000 fatal traffic accidents around the United States between 1975 and 2003 among drivers in three age groups: 15 to 24; 25 to 64; and 65 and older.
In response to an aging driving population, many states have imposed more stringent licensing requirements, such as in-person renewals and mandatory vision testing for senior drivers. While only Illinois and New Hampshire require older drivers to take a road test, several recent high-profile accidents involving older drivers have caused legislators in a number of states to consider tightening licensing requirements for older drivers.
The study argues that it is costly to both states and seniors to impose more stringent age-based licensing requirements and that the benefits of doing so have not been rigorously validated. Instead, the study concludes that more accidents could be prevented and lives saved by improving car and road design to make auto travel safer for older drivers and passengers.
"Policies that lead to improvements in overall traffic safety will have much larger impacts on injury rates than will efforts to identify the relatively small number of older drivers whose licenses should be revoked," Loughran said.
The report is titled "Regulating Older Drivers: Are New Policies Needed?" It was funded and produced by the RAND Institute for Civil Justice. Other authors of the report include Seth A. Seabury and Laura Zakaras of RAND.
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