Older Drivers: Getting Educated

 In Vehicle Safety

As the Baby Boomers reach retirement age, the number and percentage of licensed drivers 65 and older has been steadily increasing. Elderly drivers statistics are stunning: In 2016, there were 41.7 million drivers aged 65 and older, making up nearly one-fifth of licensed drivers in the United States. By 2030, the US Census Bureau estimates that the population of people 65 years and older will reach 72.1 million, about one quarter of the driving age population.

Seat belts have a long history of saving lives. We buckle up and assume that we are all (mother, father, sister, brother) equally protected in a crash. Unfortunately, that’s not necessarily true.

Just as a 70-year-old man is more likely to be injured in a fall than a 20-year-old man, older people are more vulnerable in car crashes than younger people. Seat belts and other safety equipment become less and less effective at keeping us safe in a crash as we age.


Auto safety experts know that injury risk in crashes increases with age. For example, the Safe Transportation and Research Education Center (SafeTREC) at UC Berkeley studied frontal crashes as slow as 31 mph. They found that while a 50-year-old female has a 10% chance of serious injury, the risk rises to 40% for an 80-year-old female.

Health and fitness can certainly help keep us protected from injury as we age. But there is no escaping the fact that overall our body changes, our vascular system stiffens and our bones lose density. Where we are most vulnerable to injury changes as well. Several studies have found that chest injuries are more likely to be life-threatening in older people than in younger individuals. One study looking at a federal sample of crashes that matches the criteria of the frontal New Car Assessment Program (NCAP) crash tests found that the rate of chest injuries in people 65 and older was more than four times higher than in people 15-43. This is a particularly important finding given that in the laboratory testing performed for the star safety rating system, a dummy’s chest injuries are compared to injury data from 35-year-old men. Bottom line, not only do seat belts show a pattern of decreasing protection as we age, but they could pose injury risk of their own as well.

Even our federal regulators recognize this problem of lack of representation in their rating system. In 2013, the federal government proposed the creation of a new Silver Car rating system that would be specifically for older drivers. They stated, “Ultimately, older consumers could use NCAP silver car rating information to help them select and purchase vehicles that would be potentially safer for them.” They have yet to implement such a system.


CARFIT – One great way to feel better about the car you already have is to attend a CarFit event. CarFit is a community-based educational program that focuses on safety, comfort, and fit to promote safe driving and mobility for older drivers. It began in 2006 as a collaboration between AAA (American Automobile Association), AARP (American Association of Retired Persons), and the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA). They work with people to:

  • Evaluate how you fit into your vehicle
  • Position your seat and mirrors to maximize your visibility and minimize blind spots
  • Check how close you sit to the steering wheel
  • Ensure your feet rest on the pedals to help minimize fatigue and optimize response time

Even if you’re not able to find an event near you, their website and brochure have lots of helpful tips for what adjustments you can make to improve your safety behind the wheel.

Personalized Auto Grades – If you’re in the market for a new vehicle, you should check out the personalized Auto Grades offered by The Auto Professor.

Auto Grades is the only safety ranking system that looks specifically at how cars have protected their older occupants.

We invite you to search some cars and compare the Auto Grades for younger drivers (16-30 years old) in comparison to older drivers (51 and over). Sometimes, for a particular car, the Auto Grades get worse with age. This reflects the fact that some cars offer sufficient protection for young drivers, but do not have a very good track record of protection for older drivers. This could be due to car features or design.

Once you are confident with your personal Auto Grades, then it may be time to actually go for a test drive. Spending a little time with The Auto Professor can help you to select a vehicle that has a better history of protection for you, personally.

Advanced Driver Assistance Systems (ADAS) – When you are shopping for a new car, you may hear terms like “Automatic Braking” or “Lane Departure” or “Crash Avoidance.” It can get very confusing and expensive. As a whole, these technologies that are intended to help prevent crashes are called “Advanced Driver Assistance Systems” or “Crash Avoidance Systems.” Since model year 2011, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA) has recommended three technologies:

  • Forward collision warning
  • Lane departure
  • Rear view cameras

We include this information in our Auto Grade report cards or you can search for a car on the NHTSA site. We will be writing more about these technologies in other “Car Safety Guides,” and we also recommend that you get educated by visiting some very informative sites:

Driving Deeper Check out the links below if you’re looking to drive deeper into this topic!

Working together to create a world where everyone walks away from a crash.