Car Crash Death Rate for Seniors, Already High, Expected to Rise

June 15, 2006

A study co-authored by a University of Virginia professor suggests that seniors citizens will die in car accidents at a higher rate in the years ahead as America’s 75 million baby boomers age, grow more frail and continue to drive.

Already, seniors 65 and over are second-most likely to die in car accidents, after young people aged 15-24, according to a National Institute on Aging report on America’s elderly, “65+ in the United States: 2005.”

“In general, older people are more susceptible to injury than younger people,” said Richard Kent, assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at U.Va.s’ School of Engineering and Applied Science. “As the population ages, the ratio of women to men also changes, going from 1-to-1 for young people to 100 women for every 35 men by age 85. And women tend to be more frail than men, making them more susceptible to injury.”

Kent studied the characteristics of car accidents and the nature of injuries sustained by older drivers in a research project titled “On the Fatal Crash Experience of Older Drivers.” The resulting paper, co-authored with Basem Henary, research associate, mechanical and aerospace engineering at U.Va. and Fumio Matsuoka, project manager for vehicle safety, Vehicle Engineering Division, Toyota Motor Corp., Japan, was recently named the Best Scientific
Paper for 2005 by the Association for the Advancement of Automotive Medicine in Barrington, Ill., an organization dedicated to the prevention and control of injuries from motor vehicle accidents.

The researchers’ goal was to identify unique aspects of older-driver crashes — in particular, the body region injured, the severity of the crash and the circumstances surrounding fatal crashes in which they were involved — with an eye to identifying patterns that could be used in developing new technologies to assist seniors in driving safely.

The researchers studied police reports on thousands of vehicle accidents for the years 1992-2002. They examined the accidents and injuries for three groups of drivers: young adults (16-33), middle-aged adults (34-64), and seniors (65 and older).

The researchers’ findings included:

• Drivers 65 and over killed in car accidents were significantly more likely to die of a chest injury (47.3 percent vs. 24.0 percent in the youngest group)

• Younger drivers were more likely to die of a head injury (22.0 percent vs. 47.1 percent in the oldest group)

• Older drivers were more likely to die at a date after the crash date (“delayed death”)

• Frailty or pre-existing health conditions played a significant role in the deaths of the older group, but not in the younger group (50.0 percent of the deaths of the older group vs. 4.3 percent of the younger drivers’ deaths)

• Despite driving at lower average speeds than younger and middle-aged drivers, and a greater likelihood of wearing seatbelts, older drivers were more likely to be injured or die in an accident than younger drivers.

According to the paper, published in the September 2005 Annual Proceedings of the Association for the Advancement of Automotive Medicine: “The archetypical elderly driver fatality involves a belted, sober driver pulling into the path of an oncoming vehicle during the day and dying several days after a collision of moderate severity. Pre-existing health issues are often related to the death. In contrast, the archetype for a 30-45 year-old driver fatality involves an unbelted, impaired driver losing control of his/her vehicle at night and dying during an extremely severe, single-vehicle crash.”

The study recommended that government and industry officials consider changes that would help reduce seniors’ injuries and deaths from motor vehicle collisions. Areas deserving of attention included: roadway design, road signage, vehicle controls and active and passive safety systems.

Researchers also identified technological developments that could help older drivers. These included seatbelts that would limit the force of a crash on a driver’s body, crash-avoidance systems, technologies that would prevent elderly drivers from crossing the centerline or pulling into an intersection without having the right-of-way.

Source: U.Va. School of Engineering and Applied Science
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