The over-70 set are also driving more. Between 1995 and 2001 alone, the miles they traveled increased by 29 percent.
Nevertheless, the research team found a reversal of a prior trend toward an increasing risk for death on the road among the elderly, noting that between 1975 and 1997, there had been a 56 percent climb in over-70 crash deaths. Between 1997 and 2001, however, fatal crash involvement among those aged 70 to 74 dropped by 26 percent. Those aged 75 to 79 experienced a 19 percent drop, while drivers over 80 experienced a 6 percent decline.
Specifically among elderly passengers, McCartt and her colleagues also found that a 106 percent rise in car crash deaths during the pre-1997 period had rolled over into a 23 percent drop during the study period.
By contrast, fatal crash involvement among the 35 to 54 set dropped by just 2 percent, while the drop among all drivers logged in at 4 percent.
"We're not sure what accounts for this," said McCartt. "We can point to the possibility that older drivers may be healthier and in better shape than they were in years past, and that could directly protect them in terms of not dying in a crash. But it also may lead to protective changes in their driving patterns so that, for example, they're more likely to be driving on safer roads -- like highways -- than they typically tended to in the past."
Doug Hecox, spokesman for the Federal Highway Administration, in Washington D.C., agreed that several factors account for the findings.
"Part of it is certainly attributable to the general American lifestyle being a healthier one," he noted. "But also cars themselves are now safer, with better restraint systems, better airbags and better braking, all of which is especially beneficial to older drivers who are a fragile community for basic physiological reasons."
"Roads themselves are also much more likely to
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