More older drivers are on the road, but does it mean more danger?

America's roadways are increasingly turning gray. But while stereotypes and jokes abound regarding the widely disparaged driving skills of older motorists, the overall aging of American drivers doesn't necessarily mean we're in for more crashes. In some cases, your teenage son Kyle may be more of a danger on the road than your Grandma Betty.

In early November 2010, the National Transportation Safety Board reported that 30 million licensed drivers in the United States are at least 65 years old. That’s about 15 percent of the more than 196 million drivers currently on U.S. roads. The safety board forecasts that by 2025, this age group will make up more than 20 percent of the U.S. driving population, or one of every five drivers.

Older drivers do have higher rates of fatal crashes, based on miles driven, than any other group except young drivers, according to the Insurance Information Institute. These older drivers accounted for about 15 percent of all Americans killed in traffic crashes in 2008, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The high death rate is attributed, in part, to the frailty of older drivers, who have less of a chance of surviving crashes than younger drivers.

Researchers have long been concerned that America's aging population could turn out to be a significant roadway safety problem. But Russ Rader, a spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, says that hasn't panned out.

auto insurance older driver

"Crashes involving older drivers are falling, even as seniors drive more and keep their licenses longer," Rader says. "We expect that trend to continue." Rader doesn't have any figures regarding this trend, however.

Based on the number of miles they drive, seniors are involved more often in certain kinds of crashes, like getting the gas and brake pedals confused, merging into another lane or onto a highway, or running into another car at an intersection. Meanwhile, teen drivers are responsible for a high numbers of traffic crashes tied to such factors as speeding and texting.

Seniors' roadway mistakes

Rader says the most common error made by senior drivers involved in crashes is failing to yield the right-of-way. "Seniors are cited for this error more often than younger drivers," he says, "and the reasons vary with age."

Compared with both younger and older drivers, drivers 70 to 79 involved in crashes are more likely to see another vehicle but misjudge whether there was time to change lanes, merge onto a highway and so forth. Drivers 80 and older predominantly fail to see another other vehicle.

Interestingly, older drivers don't seem to tailgate like younger motorists do. A 2007 Insurance Institute for Highway Safety study of nonfatal crashes at intersections found drivers 80 and older had fewer rear-end crashes than drivers ages 35 to 54 and 70 to 79. Both groups of older drivers experienced more failure-to-yield crashes but ran off roadways less than younger drivers.

"Although not as high as for the youngest drivers, property damage and collision claims start increasing after about age 65, meaning seniors are more often involved in fender-bender type crashes," Rader says.

Those fender-benders can lead to higher auto insurance premiums for seniors, but the financial pain can vary widely according to age, driving history, type of car and other factors.

"Insurance premiums are normally based on the driver's history," says Dan Weedin, an insurance and risk management consultant in Seattle. If older drivers continue to drive safely, then their insurance premiums should decline over time.

However, if an older driver becomes less careful and gets into accidents, receives traffic tickets and so on, auto insurance premiums could go up, says Brian Kane, owner of Donnelly & Sproul Inc., an insurance brokerage in Glen Rock, N.J. Fender-benders normally are forgiven for drivers from roughly 25 to 60, but not for older drivers.

Some carriers won't renew an auto insurance policy if a driver frequently racks up small claims for incidents like running over mailboxes or garbage cans.

auto insurance older drivers

"That leaves older drivers in a difficult situation because a new carrier won't be anxious to bring them on as new business. There are some carriers that offer guaranteed renewals, however, if a senior with a poor driving record could pay double or triple what a driver with a clean record pays for that auto-renewal guarantee," Weedin says.

Take action early

Before an accident occurs -- even a minor fender-bender -- Kane says pre-seniors (age 57 to 65) and seniors can stay safe and keep rates down by taking an accident prevention course through an insurance company, state motor vehicle agency or AARP. "Some carriers might consider completion of a safe driver course a means to reduce rates," Kane says.

But Rader cautions that those courses might not yield great results on the road.

"We don't have any evidence that refresher driving courses help. They can't hurt, but we wouldn't expect lower crash rates due to skills training," he says.

Having 'the talk'

Relatives and friends can help by reminding older drivers to stay in touch with their auto insurers about maintaining appropriate coverage based, for instance, on the number of miles they drive.

"Some insurance carriers require that senior drivers have a doctor's signature to sign off on a clean bill of health once a driver reaches a certain age or if they have an accident," Weedin says. It's important to discuss this, and any other requirements for senior drivers, with an insurance agent before buying or renewing a policy.

Taking away the car keys from a senior whose driving skills may be shaky is a last-resort option; it's a tricky and emotion-charged maneuver. Seniors typically view that as robbing them of their freedom.

"Sometimes discussing the dangers of misjudging a traffic light or sleepiness on the road, and how driving less or having someone drive him or her keeps everyone safe, eases a senior into giving up driving," says Frank Darras, an insurance attorney in Ontario, Calif. Whoever has that discussion with a senior driver should stress that one miscalculation behind the wheel could be extremely costly. "And in the event of an accident, the courts will take their license forever," Darras says.

Family members can be spared some heartache when dealing with older relatives who may need to have their car keys taken away, though. "Ask a doctor, member of clergy or trusted family friend to intervene and begin the dialogue with a senior," Weedin recommends.

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