Picture this: You're out on the road, driving in mixed traffic with your choice of drivers to follow. One is a gray-haired senior puttering along in the right lane and the other is a fresh-faced teenager moving briskly in the left lane.
Statistically speaking, which driver is safer to follow? The older driver with the slower reflexes, poorer vision, and cautious driving style, or the younger driver with faster reactions, better eyesight, and driving with the flow of traffic?
The answer: Stay in the right lane, behind the oldster, and let the teenager go on his way. According to statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the safest drivers are in the age group between 64 and 69 years old. And studies of the data reveal that teenage drivers — especially male teenage drivers — are the most dangerous drivers on the road.
"In every motorized country around the world, teenage drivers are disproportionately involved in crashes," said Dr. Anne McCartt, senior vice president for research at the Institute. "The seriousness of this problem has been recognized for decades. Only in the last few years have public policies such as graduated driving licenses been enacted to address the situation. And those laws seem to be working, but fatalities are still high."
Statistics Say Seniors are Safer
In 2008, 5,864 15- to 20-year-old drivers were involved in fatal crashes. That's the bad news. The good news is that number is down by 27 percent since 1998. Driver fatalities for this age group also decreased by 20 percent in the same time period.
However, motor vehicle crashes still remain the major cause of death for teenagers. In 2008, 2,739 15- to 20-year-old drivers were killed and an additional 228,000 were injured in motor vehicle crashes. Sixty percent of deaths among passenger vehicle occupants ages 16-19 were drivers.
Senior drivers, like teenage drivers, have higher crash rates per mile driven, especially when it comes to fatal crashes. But seniors don't drive as many miles, so a better measurement of their susceptibility to accidents can be had by comparing crash rates on a per capita basis. Looking at the numbers in this way shows senior drivers have much lower crash rates. Despite their increased risk of crashing per mile driven, relatively few elderly drivers are involved in accidents because of their lower rates of exposure. In addition, the rate of fatalities per capita among seniors has decreased 40 percent since 1975 and is now at its lowest level during this period.
Let’s look at the numbers. In 2008, 15- to 20-year-old drivers made up 8.5 percent of the U.S. population, yet accounted for 12 percent of occupant deaths among all ages in passenger vehicle (cars, pickups, SUVs, and vans). Per mile driven, teen drivers ages 16 to 19 are four times more likely than older drivers to crash. Drivers from 65 to 69 years old made up 3.7 percent of the population, but accounted for just 3.2 percent of all fatal crashes.
Major risk factors contributing to teenage crashes are those you would expect, including:
• Lack of experience. Teens are more likely than older drivers to underestimate dangerous situations or not be able to recognize hazardous situations.
• Poor judgment. Teens are more likely than older drivers to speed and allow shorter headways (the distance from the front of one vehicle to the front of the next).
• Low seat belt usage. Compared with other age groups, teens have the lowest rate of seat belt use. In 2007, 61 percent of all 15- to 20-year-old passenger vehicle occupants killed in fatal crashes were not wearing seat belts.
Preventing Teenage Driving Injuries
"Almost all states have adopted some form of graduated driver licensing," said Dr. McCartt. "These laws are proving effective in reducing teenage crashes."
Graduated driver licensing (GDL) systems are designed to delay full licensure while allowing teens to get their initial driving experience under low-risk conditions. Research suggests that the most comprehensive of these programs are associated with reductions of 38 percent and 40 percent in fatal and injury crashes, respectively, among 16-year-old drivers.
"When parents know their state's GDL laws, they can help enforce the laws and, in effect, help keep their teen drivers safe," said Dr. McCartt.
One of the reasons for their safer driving statistics is that seniors tend to be more aware of their limitations and drive accordingly. "There may be several factors as to why seniors appear to be safer drivers, one of which may be that most teens are novice drivers and seniors have been at it a lot longer," said Patricia Swift-Oladeinde, spokeswoman at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. "But regardless of each person's ability, NHTSA encourages all drivers to solely focus on driving when behind the wheel. After all, one distraction can be one too many," she said.