Older drivers

Overview

Advancing age can bring impairments that affect driving ability. Drivers age 70 and older have higher crash rates per mile traveled than middle-aged drivers, though not as high as young drivers.

The number of drivers age 70 and older is growing. Older people make up a bigger proportion of the population than they used to, and their share continues to grow. In addition, older drivers are keeping their licenses longer.

Despite their growing numbers, older drivers are involved in fewer fatal collisions than in the past. A total of 4,974 people ages 70 and older died in crashes in 2017. That's 15 percent fewer than in 1997.

Many older drivers limit their driving. Surveys show that many people drive fewer miles and avoid night driving or other challenging situations as they get older. Some states require in-person license renewal for older drivers to help identify those who shouldn't be driving or should have restricted licenses.

By the numbers

In 2017, there were an estimated 34 million people 70 and older living in the United States, representing about 10 percent of the population. Based on data reported by states to the Federal Highway Administration, there were approximately 28 million licensed drivers 70 and older in 2017 (FHWA, 2018).

Compared with drivers ages 20-69, fewer people 70 and older are licensed to drive (FHWA, 2018), and, based on data from the National Household Travel Survey, they drive fewer miles. However, older people now keep their licenses longer and make up a bigger proportion of the population than in past decades. The number of licensed drivers 70 and older increased 58 percent between 1997 and 2017. The proportion of the 70-and-older population with licenses went from 73 percent in 1997 to 82 percent in 2017.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the population 70 and older is projected to increase to 53 million in 2030 (U.S. Census Bureau, 2017). The increase in the older driver population has led to concerns about the potential effects on traffic safety.  

Contrary to expectations, however, fewer older drivers died in crashes and fewer were involved as drivers in fatal collisions during 1998-2017 than in previous decades.

A total of 4,974 people ages 70 and older died in motor vehicle crashes in 2017. This is 15 percent fewer than in 1997, when deaths peaked, even though the population of people 70 and older rose 39 percent during this period. The rate of fatalities per capita among older people has decreased 44 percent since 1975. 

Rate of fatal crash involvements among passenger vehicle drivers 70 and older per 100,000 people, 1975-2017

Nationally, the fatal crash involvement rates of drivers 70 and older declined per licensed driver during 1997-2012 and per vehicle mile traveled between 1995-96 and 2008 at a faster pace than the rates for drivers 35-54 years old (Cicchino & McCartt, 2014). The reductions were strongest among the oldest drivers (age 80 and older). 

Based on 2017 travel data, drivers 70 and older drove 43 percent fewer miles, on average, than drivers ages 35-54. However, older drivers are traveling more miles than they used to. From 1995-96 to 2017, average yearly mileage increased by 65 percent for drivers 70 and older, compared with a 37 percent increase for drivers 33-54.

Older drivers have low rates of police-reported crash involvements per capita; their per capita fatal crash rates begin to increase at about age 70. Per mile traveled, crash rates and fatal crash rates also start increasing at about age 70.

It's worth noting that older drivers generally travel fewer miles than most other age groups and, like low-mileage drivers of other ages, they tend to accumulate much of their mileage in city driving conditions. In contrast, drivers who accumulate more miles tend to drive more on freeways or divided multilane roads, which generally have much lower crash rates than other types of roads. Hence, the elevated crash rates for older drivers when measured per mile traveled may be somewhat inflated due to the type of driving they do (Janke, 1991).

Insurance claims provide another view of crashes of all severities. Drivers ages 60-64 have the lowest rates of property damage liability claims and collision claims per insured vehicle year. Rates start increasing after about age 65. However, older drivers' insurance claim rates are much lower than rates for the youngest drivers.

Per capita rate of passenger vehicle crash involvements by driver age, 2017

Passenger vehicle crash rates per mile traveled, by driver age, 2017

Number of collisions and property damage liability insurance claims per 100 insured vehicle years by rated driver age, 1981-2018 vehicle models, calendar years 2015-2018

Age and driving ability

Specific physical, cognitive and visual abilities may decline with advancing age for some people.

Functional impairments can interfere with driving and may become particularly evident in stressful or challenging driving situations such as turning left, merging or changing lanes.

Several studies have shown that higher levels of physical, cognitive or visual impairment among older drivers are associated with increased risk of crash involvement (Owsley et al., 1991; Ball et al., 1993; Huisingh et al., 2017; Owsley et al., 1998; Anstey et al., 2005).

Many older drivers also take medications, which can impair driving ability at any age but can be especially impairing for an older person (McGwin et al., 2000).

Compared with younger drivers, senior drivers are more likely to be involved in certain types of collisions — angle crashes, overtaking or merging crashes, and especially intersection crashes (Lombardi et al., 2017). Among passenger vehicle drivers involved in fatal crashes in 2017, multiple-vehicle crashes at intersections accounted for 40 percent of the crashes for drivers 80 and older, compared with 20 percent for drivers ages 16-59.

Studies have found that failure to yield the right-of-way is the most common error by seniors involved in crashes. Seniors are cited for this error more often than younger drivers (Mayhew et al., 2006). 

In a nationally representative study of serious U.S. crashes, the most frequent error made by crash-involved drivers ages 70 and older was inadequate surveillance, which included looking but not seeing and failing to look (Cicchino & McCartt, 2015). Drivers ages 70 and older were more likely than drivers ages 35-54 to make inadequate surveillance errors or to misjudge the length of a gap between vehicles or another vehicle's speed.

Generally, older drivers tend to be aware of their limitations and make adjustments to limit the type of driving they do (Braitman & McCartt, 2008Baldock et al., 2006Ball et al., 1998Lyman et al., 2001Stutts, 1998Molnar & Eby, 2008Molnar et al., 2015).

For example, an IIHS survey of 2,500 drivers 65 and older found that drivers with reported impairments in memory, vision, mobility and/or medical conditions such as arthritis or diabetes were more likely than other drivers to self-limit their driving by making fewer trips, traveling shorter distances, or avoiding driving at night, on interstates, or in ice or snow (Braitman & McCartt, 2008).

Still, some seniors don't self-regulate or adjust their driving (Baldock et al., 2006; Ball et al., 1998), including some who have high levels of cognitive impairment (Stutts, 1998; Devlin & McGillivray, 2016).

Age and injury risk

A study of older drivers' elevated fatal crash rates per mile traveled during 2005-08 revealed that the main factor was not seniors' over-involvement in crashes but their fragility, or risk of death in a crash (Cicchino, 2015). Similar results are found with more recent data for 2012-16. Fragility increases starting around middle age and continues to rise with age.

Number of passenger vehicle driver deaths per 1,000 drivers involved in police-reported crashes by driver age, 2012-16

In terms of fatalities, older drivers are a danger mostly to themselves and their passengers, who also typically are older (Braver & Trempel, 2004Dellinger et al., 2004Langford et al., 2008Tefft, 2008).

In 2017, 72 percent of people killed in crashes involving drivers 70 or older were either the older drivers themselves (59 percent) or their older passengers (13 percent).

Driver license renewal

Most U.S. states have one or more renewal provisions specific to older drivers, such as shorter renewal cycles, required vision or road testing, and in-person rather than mail or electronic renewal. The ages at which special regulations are required vary by state.

Regulations requiring in-person renewal or vision testing are the only policies that are associated with lower fatality rates among older drivers, and only among drivers ages 85 and older (Tefft, 2014).

For drivers 55 and older, fatality rates per licensed driver are not lower in states with laws requiring road testing, knowledge testing or shortened renewal periods for older drivers than in states without such requirements (Tefft, 2014).

HLDI studies on mandatory road tests in Illinois and New Hampshire showed the effect on insurance claim rates is mixed.

Insurance claim rates were lower for drivers 75 and older in Illinois, compared with surrounding states without road test requirements (HLDI, 2016). HLDI also found that people 75 and older were less likely to be insured in Illinois than in surrounding states, which suggests that the road test requirement discouraged some older people from continuing to drive.

In contrast, New Hampshire didn't see the same benefit from the road test requirement, which was in effect for drivers 75 and older until 2011 (HLDI, 2016).

An Australian study found that drivers 80 and older in jurisdictions with age-based mandatory medical and/or road tests didn't have lower fatal and serious injury crash involvement rates per capita or per licensed driver compared with drivers in a jurisdiction without age-based mandatory testing (Langford et al., 2004). Some jurisdictions with mandatory age-based testing had significantly higher fatal and serious injury crash rates than the jurisdiction without age-based testing.

Some states impose restrictions on older divers if an assessment finds they are warranted. Possible restrictions include no driving on high-speed roads, outside a certain area or at night.

Drivers may be subject to evaluations by licensing agencies based on referrals from police, physicians, family, or observations by personnel at licensing offices. States may establish policies for further testing that include vision screening, road tests, knowledge tests and/or evaluations by medical advisory boards.

An IIHS study of a restricted licensing program in Iowa found that drivers 70 and older who were identified for further testing reported more visual impairments, prescription medications and physical mobility limitations than older drivers not identified for further testing (Braitman et al., 2010). Many drivers who received restrictions had already decided to decrease or self-regulate their trips by driving less or reducing or eliminating driving in risky situations, such as at night. The restrictions appeared to reinforce those decisions.

Studies on the effects of license restrictions on crashes have produced varied results. One study of older drivers in British Columbia found that when accounting for age and gender, drivers who were restricted remained crash-free for longer after license renewal than unrestricted drivers (Nasvadi & Wister, 2009). Other studies have reported mixed findings for the effects of restrictions on crashes (Langford & Koppel, 2011; Stutts et al., 2000).

Vehicle safety features

Some vehicle features that help protect occupants of all ages are especially beneficial to older occupants. Side airbags with head and torso protection have been estimated to reduce fatalities in nearside impacts by 45 percent for front seat occupants ages 70 and older, which is significantly larger than the 30 percent reduction estimated for front seat occupants ages 13-49 (Kahane, 2013).

The safety belts in older cars tended to be less effective for older occupants than for other occupants, but modern safety belts with pretensioners and load limiters are generally equally effective for adults of all ages. The same is true of frontal airbags.

Vehicle technologies intended to prevent crashes may help drivers of all ages. Front crash prevention systems, blind spot detection and lane departure warning have been shown to reduce crashes (Cicchino, 2017; Cicchino, 2018; Cicchino, 2018). Rearview cameras and rear parking sensors have been shown to be especially effective for drivers 70 and older in preventing backing crashes that are reported to the police (Cicchino, 2017).

Despite the potential benefits of crash avoidance technologies for helping to prevent crashes, there is some concern that systems requiring attention or responses from drivers may lead to cognitive overload or distraction from the driving task itself, especially for older drivers.

Surveys of vehicle owners with crash avoidance technologies have reported some differences by age (Cicchino & McCartt, 2015; Eichelberger & McCartt, 2016). For instance, the percentage of drivers who reported they had received multiple alerts from front crash prevention systems believed the systems helped prevent a crash declined with age, as did the percentage who reported drifting from their lanes less often with a lane departure warning and prevention system.

Drivers older than 60 generally have not reported special difficulties using the technologies. In a survey of owners of Buick Lucerne vehicles with rear parking sensors, 95 percent of the respondents were older than 60 and 70 percent were older than 70 (Cicchino et al., 2015). Nearly all of the owners said they would want the technology on their next vehicle.

Driving environment

Much can be done to improve roadway safety for all drivers, but especially for seniors. Improving the visibility of road signs and pavement markings through lettering, size or color can be particularly important for older drivers who may have visual impairments due to macular degeneration, glaucoma, cataracts or other health factors.

Intersections are a particular problem for older drivers, and countermeasures may include adding left-turn lanes and left-turn traffic signals. One study found that low-cost modifications to intersections (e.g., making traffic signals more visible or adding a dedicated left-turn lane) resulted in a 13 percent greater reduction in injury crashes per licensed driver 65 and older compared with drivers ages 25-64 (Bagdade, 2004).

Another approach is to reconfigure existing or new intersections as roundabouts, which reduce vehicle speeds and eliminate some of the most complicated aspects of traditional intersections. In an Institute study of intersections that were converted from stop signs or traffic signals to roundabouts, injury crashes were reduced by 76 percent (Retting et al., 2001). In surveys taken at least one year after the construction of new roundabouts in six communities, 65 percent of drivers ages 65 and older favored the roundabouts, compared with 70 percent of drivers 35-64 and 74 percent of drivers 18-34 (Retting et al., 2007).

Adding features to roundabouts to make them easier to navigate, such as advanced warning signs and directional signs, may encourage older drivers to choose routes with roundabouts as opposed to conventional intersections (Lord et al., 2007).