published Thursday, July 7th, 2011

Inside Insurance: Young, Senior Drivers Most Vulnerable For Different Reasons

By David Colmans

By 2020 there will be more than 40 million drivers on the road age 65 and older in the United States.

It should be no surprise that older drivers have higher rates of fatal crashes, based on miles driven, than any other group except young drivers, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. The high death rate is due in large part to their frailty. Older people are less likely to survive an injury than younger people.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, (http://www.nhtsa.dot.gov), 32.2 million licensed drivers were age 65 and older in the United States in 2008 (latest data available). NHTSA says 5,533 people age 65 and older were killed in traffic crashes in 2009. This represents 16 percent of all Americans killed on the road. In addition, 187,000 older individuals were injured in traffic crashes in 2009.

There is a growing need to help older drivers sharpen their skills as well as recognize their changing abilities and adapt their driving practices appropriately. Insurers have partnered with state and local governments, and groups such as AARP, to create programs designed to address these needs. In addition, an increasing number of states routinely attempt to identify, assess and regulate older drivers with diminishing abilities that cannot or will not voluntarily modify their driving habits.

Recently, at least two insurers have adopted computer-based training programs for older drivers, which are designed to improve drivers’ useful field of vision—the visual area over which information can be extracted at a single glance. Studies have shown that drivers who have a limited useful field of vision are twice as likely to experience a crash. Although the range of the useful field of vision declines with age, research shows that it can be improved with brain training. In fact, specific training lasting only 10 hours has been shown to produce impressive reductions in driving risk and crashes, according to the Insurance Information Institute.

Why are motor vehicle crashes the leading cause of death among 15- to 20-year olds? Immaturity and lack of driving experience are the two main factors leading to the high crash rate among teens. Teens’ lack of experience affects their recognition of and response to hazardous situations and results in dangerous practices such as speeding and tailgating.

Other major contributing factors to the higher crash risk of young drivers are night driving and teen passengers. Teenagers are involved in more motor vehicle crashes late in the day and at night than at other times of the day. Teens also have a greater chance of getting involved in an accident if other teens are present in the vehicle.

Graduated drivers license (GDL) laws, which include a three-phase program that allows teen drivers to develop more mature driving attitudes and gain experience behind the wheel, have been successful in reducing teen motor vehicle accidents. Since 1996, when Florida became the first state to enact a GDL law, most states have enacted such laws, but provisions vary.

States have their responsibilities regarding young drivers, as do parents. Peers are often involved in crashes but they too should have a stronger role on the side of responsibility instead of complicity.

Drivers age 15 to 20 accounted for 11 percent of all drivers involved in fatal crashes in 2009 and 14 percent of all drivers involved in police-reported crashes. The number of drivers age 15 to 20 involved in fatal crashes totaled 5,148 in 2009, down 37 percent from the 8,224 involved in 2000.

Thirty-three percent of drivers age 15 to 20 who were killed in motor vehicle crashes in 2009 had been drinking some amount of alcohol; 28 percent were alcohol-impaired, which is defined by a blood alcohol content of 0.08 grams per deciliter or higher.

In 2006 (latest data available) crashes involving 15- to 17-year olds cost more than $34 billion nationwide in medical treatment, property damage and other costs, according to an AAA analysis.

Both the young and old are vulnerable for different reasons, but traffic crashes that could be prevented continue to affect virtually all drivers.

David Colmans is the executive director of the Georgia Insurance Information Service. Contact him at (770) 565-3806 or by email at dcolmans@giis.org

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