It’s almost a cliché, the sight of a aged motorist who can barely peer over the steering wheel, driving a well-kept, yet still dated older car. While holding onto a vehicle as long as possible can be a financial necessity, especially for those who are on fixed retirement incomes, it’s far from being the safest choice.
As it is, statistics show that elderly motorists are less likely to survive a serious crash than any other age group. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), while seniors in their 70’s and 80’s are driving more miles and getting into fewer accidents, they’re about four times more likely to perish in a side-impact wreck as are middle-aged drivers, and around three times as likely to be visited by the Grim Reaper in the course of a frontal crash.
Two more-recent IIHS studies indicate this situation is at least due in part to many older motorists’ tendency to drive older, so-called “retirement vehicles” that may be still serviceable, but lack what have by now become essential safety features and aren’t up to snuff in terms of crash test performance. Drivers in their 70’s were found to be significantly more likely to own cars that have been on the road for 16 years or more than are motorists in the 35-54-year-old group.
In addition to lacking today’s advanced driver-assist safety systems, older vehicles may not be equipped with Electronic Stability Control (ESC) and/or side-curtain airbags, two features that have since become commonplace. ESC, which can help prevent drivers from spinning out and/or rolling over in sudden or extreme handling situations was federally mandated to be included in every light-duty car and truck sold in the U.S., beginning with the 2012 model year. Side impact airbags were likewise required in all models, phased in over a four-year period beginning in 2009.
What’s more, older drivers were found to more frequently own smaller sedans and hatchbacks than other age groups, where midsize cars and SUVs are far more popular. As we all have come to learn, all else being equal, a smaller and lighter vehicle will tend to not protect its occupants as well in a crash as will a larger and heavier ride. Plus, older cars may lack subsequent design improvements that would otherwise allow them to score higher on the IIHS’ most stringent crash tests.
The Institute’s researchers found that crash fatalities among drivers age 70 and older could be reduced by five percent, and those over 80 by three percent if they drove vehicles that were up to the same safety standards as their middle-aged counterparts. That comes to around 90 lives per year, based on 2019 highway data, which is the latest available.
“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.”
Unfortunately, even when they do trade in an older car for a new or late-model used vehicle, seniors were found not to be as adamant about choosing one that’s equipped with important accident avoidance systems as younger car shoppers. For example, only around 25 percent of motorists 70 years or older said they required forward automatic emergency braking when they last bought a car, compared to 40 percent of middle-aged motorists.
“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 perceived 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.”
If you’re getting up there in years and are in the market for a new car or SUV, or know someone who is, be sure to pick a model that at the least comes with forward collision warning and emergency braking that will automatically apply the brakes to avoid colliding with another vehicle or other obstacle (some can avoid hitting bicyclists, pedestrians and even large animals) in its path.
It’s especially important to look for a system that works at lower speeds in addition to higher ones, especially among seniors that most frequently limit their driving to local roads, where the risk of getting onto a crash is statistically higher than on the highway. The IIHS estimates that forward collision warning/auto-braking systems can reduce the number of front-to-rear crashes by 50 percent, and prevent injuries when such collisions are unavoidable by 56 percent.
Fortunately, a dozen automakers are reportedly on track to meet a self-imposed mandate to make forward emergency braking standard on at least 90 percent of their light-duty production vehicles by the 2023 model year.