Older drivers have long inspired both jokes and worry. Some people laugh at clichés about senior citizens driving slowly with their turn signals always on, while others fret that older drivers are a danger to themselves and others because they are believed to cause a disproportionate share of motor vehicle crashes.

Ending the jokes and fears

According to a new study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), there is no good reason to laugh at older drivers or to fear them. The nonprofit organization says its research shows that “drivers in their 70s are now less likely to be involved in a fatal crash than those in their prime working years.”

The IIHS said that “historically, older drivers were more likely to crash than other age groups, and they were less likely to survive if they did crash.”

Silver tsunami averted

In the 1980s, experts warned that the aging Baby Boom generation could dramatically worsen national traffic safety. IIHS researchers tested to test the “silver tsunami” theory by comparing crash data for drivers 70 and over with data for drivers ages 35 to 54. They analyzed fatal crashes in the two groups, as well as crash involvement per vehicle mile traveled.

They found that both the number of older licensed drivers and their average annual mileage both soared from 2010 to 2018.

Driving longer and farther

IIHS vice president for research Jessica Cicchino said older drivers are “not only keeping their licenses longer but also driving more miles” and that improvements in health care have helped older drivers to avoid crashes caused by failing eyesight or impaired cognitive processes.

The IIHS also says that older drivers – along with drivers in all other age categories – also benefit from improvements in vehicle safety systems.

Infrastructure design improvements – including clearer traffic signs and signals and increased use of roundabouts – have also made driving safer for seniors.

Positive and negative trends

The IIHS says that the fatal accident rate for drivers 70 and over fell a whopping 43 percent from 1997 to 2018, while the fatal crash rate for drivers ages 35-54 fell 21 percent over that period. However, researchers noted that “virtually all those reductions occurred during the first half of the study period.” While the fatal crash rate for older drivers was steady in the second half of the period, the rate for middle-aged drivers reversed itself and began to rise.

As a result, drivers 70 and over “had fewer police-reported crashes per mile than middle-aged drivers for the first time in 2017.”

The economy might be a factor, too

Cicchino, who co-authored the study, said as the nation recovered from the Great Recession of 2007-2009, a pair of historical economy-related trends might have affected middle-aged drivers more than older drivers. She said crash fatalities typically drop during recessions and rise when the economy strengthens, and that alcohol-related crashes also drop during recessions and rise during economic rebounds.

However the numbers are sliced, the evidence shows it’s time to stop jeering and fearing older drivers.