The ‘Silver Tsunamis’ Misnomer: Older Drivers Are Not The Danger People Thought They Would Be

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Photo from Pat Dalton

The term “silver tsunamis” was coined to describe older drivers, and with the baby boomer generation entering in to that category, many in the auto insurance industry were getting ready for an increase in driving hazards and accidents due to age. However, a recent study has determined the exact opposite to be true.

According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), these older drivers “aren’t endangering the nation’s roadways.”

Baby boomers are now moving in to their 70s, but they are demonstrating better physical health and driving capabilities, the report states.

The study, entitled “Trends in Older Driver Crash Involvement Rates and Fragility,” showed that crash and fatality figures were lower than expected.

Study co-author Anne McCartt, also the senior vice-president for the Institute, said crash figures even among the oldest drivers have “been on a downswing” in recent years.

By “recent years,” McCartt meant the mid-1990s, and these positive changes are coming about as a result of “general improvements nationwide to car safety and well-being among the elderly.”

“This should help ease fears that aging baby boomers are a safety threat,” McCartt said in a statement.


More Driving, Less Danger

Motorists under scrutiny in the report drive fewer miles compared to younger age groups, but between 1995 and 2001, the average annual mileage increased by a bigger percentage than that of middle-aged motorists.

Studying data from 1997 to 2012, IIHS found close to 4 out of every 5 older people were licensed in 2012. In 1997, it was less than 3 of every 4.

Throughout that same period, older driver fatalities went from 4,823 (in 1997) to 3,616 (in 2012), a drop of more than 20 percent.

Concerning “fatality crash involvement” during the 15-year period, the study found decreases of 36 percent for the 70-74 age group; 46 percent for the 75-79 group; and 49 percent for the 80-and-older crowd. Between the years of 1995 and 2008, the rates dropped further than for middle-aged drivers by a margin of 39 percent to 26 percent.

“Similar declines” were found for overall injury crashes during that time period.

“Changes in travel patterns among older drivers” may have had an influence on figures,” the report stated. “The fact that older drivers increased their average mileage during 1997-2012 may indicate that they are remaining physically and mentally comfortable with driving tasks. … When older adults reduce their trips, there’s evidence that it is often because they are self-regulating their driving in response to impairments.”


Myth Of The ‘Silver Tsunamis’

The silver tsunami name was given before experts factored in lifestyle changes of the next older generation. A previous report by IIHS expressed “concern about the risk of having so many people 65 and older on U.S. roads.”

That 2001 report — “Older Drivers Up Close: They Aren’t Dangerous, Except Maybe to Themselves” — warned against increases in fatality statistics because they “injure more easily than younger people.” But according to the IIHS, the “predicted problem hadn’t shown up in fatal crash data” five years later, and when they looked again in 2008, older drivers were “bucking the prediction.”


In Summary

While the study from the IIHS is certainly a surprising find, it probably shouldn’t be when you start breaking it down. So much of our driving ability depends on alertness and reflexes. If we’re taking care of ourselves through diet and exercise, we’re likely to get some more miles out of the experience, so to speak. Do you find it surprising that older drivers are driving more and crashing less? Share your thoughts in our comments section.

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