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Feature Stories

New highway safety plan driven by climbing death, injury figures among older people

Older DriversThe headline seems scary, but don't be alarmed. Drivers between ages 65-75 remain among the safest on the road, according to some who study the matter.

But because the baby boomer numbers are growing much more quickly than the rest of the population, the actual number of older drivers killed and hurt in accidents is going up. So the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, or NHTSA, wants to do something about it.

In its December 2013 "Traffic Safety for Older People 5-year Plan,"; NHTSA reports:

  • 5,560 people 65 and older died in highway wrecks in 2012, up 3 percent from 2011.
  • 214,000 were injured in car crashes in 2012, up 16 percent from 2011. (The 2013 figures aren't available).

Why older folks keep driving

In 1996, the average retirement age was 60. Today, thanks partly to climbing retirement ages under Social Security, more people stay on the job longer to get better benefits. Also, a longer-than-usual recovery from the 2008 financial downturn keeps older people working later in life.

The two factors helped push the average retirement age to 67 through 2012. Together, they mean more older drivers are on the road more often these days. In 2012, 43.1 million Americans were 65 or older - 14 percent of the population. But they were involved in 17 percent of traffic deaths.

NHTSA's plan for better older driver safety

Through 2015, the federal agency will focus on data showing exactly what causes accidents involving older drivers, including drivers' vision, strength, flexibility, and cognition. In the next three years, the agency says, "We will focus on better understanding age effects on different age groups (60s, 70s, 80s, and older). We will use findings to document relationships among specific ages and outcomes, then develop specialized tools incorporating the new data.";

Those specialized tools might be vehicle crash avoidance systems, vehicle-to-vehicle communications to support crash avoidance, and self-driving vehicles.

"Such research may result in technologies that benefit all drivers, but there may also be benefits for just older drivers, further reducing their crash risks,"; says the five-year traffic safety plan.