As the baby boomer generation ages, the elderly are becoming a bigger segment of the driving population. And while some are racing around town like the "little old lady from Pasadena," a growing number seem to be becoming more cautious. Contrary to expectations, older drivers are involved in fewer fatal collisions now than in decades past, perhaps because they're limiting their time on the road, two new Insurance Institute for Highway Safety studies report. Safer cars may be helping, too. "The findings are a welcome surprise," said Anne McCartt, Institute senior vice president for research, and an author of the new studies. "No matter how we looked at the fatal crash data for this age group — whether by miles driven, licensed drivers, or population — the fatal crash involvement rates for drivers 70 and older declined, and did so at a faster pace than the rates for drivers 35-54 years old." The study, which looked at driving trends over the years 1997 to 2006, found a 21 percent decline in crash deaths among drivers 70 and older, even as the number of licensed drivers in the age group climbed from 18 million to 20 million. If the fatal crash involvement rate for older drivers had instead mirrored the trend among younger ones, nearly 7,000 additional older drivers would have been in fatal crashes during the study period. Compared with drivers ages 20 to 69, fewer people 70 and older are licensed to drive, and they tend to drive fewer miles per outing. But older drivers also hang on to their licenses longer now and drive more miles. In the past, crash risk tended to increase with age because of physical, cognitive and visual declines associated with aging. Risk of fatality in a crash also increases for the elderly because their bodies are generally more fragile. The researchers say they can't single out a particular reason for the decline in elderly fatal crash rates, though they suggest that safer cars, more physically-fit seniors and self-limiting of driving could play a part. One of the Institute studies surveyed drivers 65 and older in three states who were renewing their licenses. It found that drivers over 80 were more than twice as likely to limit their own driving than 65- to 69-year-olds. Of those, 74 percent cited medical conditions such as diabetes or arthritis as limiting factors, and 69 percent cited memory impairments.
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