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Safety features reduce risk for seniors

Active safety technologies can be particularly helpful to the aging population

Published: May 15, 2014, 3:00 AM
Updated: November 26, 2014, 3:26 AM

Senior driver

Both the numbers and percentages of older drivers on the road are about to increase dramatically as the baby-boomers drive deeper into their senior years.

That fact has prompted questions about the impact such a surge in the number of senior drivers will have on road safety.

As a sponsor of this week's North American Conference on Elderly Mobility, General Motors says the numerous active safety features on today's vehicles can be helpful to older drivers who may have longer reaction times, limited perceptual abilities and reduced dexterity.

The U.S.-based Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) says many older drivers also take medications, which can impair driving ability at any age but can be especially problematic for an older person.

According to the IIHS, insurance claims for drivers per insured vehicle year start increasing, albeit gradually, after about age 65, meaning that seniors are involved in crashes more often than through their middle-aged years.

However, the rate of crash involvement for seniors still remains lower than that for drivers below 30 until they are well into their 80s.

In addition, the involvement of older drivers in both fatal and property damage crashes over the past 15 years has not only declined, it has done so at a faster rate than for younger, middle-aged drivers,

Stated another way, seniors now have a lower likelihood of being involved in a police-reported crash and a greater likelihood that they will survive when they do crash, according to the IIHS.

Credit for both the reduced crash rates and increased survivability rates must go, at least in part, to the improved safety features in modern vehicles. Some of those features are especially beneficial to older occupants, the IIHS says.

For example, side airbags with head and torso protection have been estimated to reduce fatalities in nearside impacts by 45% for front seat occupants aged 70 and older, compared to an estimated 30% reduction for those aged 13-to-49.

Technologies intended to prevent crashes, such as Electronic Stability Control (ESC) – now standard on all new cars and light trucks sold in Canada – have been found to be highly effective in reducing single-vehicle fatal crash risk for drivers of all ages.

The IIHS says the jury is still out on many other advanced crash avoidance technologies, which haven't been around long enough for researchers to analyze their effectiveness.

However, features such as front crash prevention systems, especially those with autonomous braking, are proving to be effective in reducing insurance claims, as are adaptive headlight systems.

Logic would suggest that blind-spot detection and lane departure warning systems might also be particularly beneficial to seniors, although the IIHS does not yet have sufficient data to support that conclusion.

There is some concern that such warnings may lead to cognitive overload or distraction from the driving task itself, especially for older drivers. However, drivers over 60 generally have not reported special difficulties using the technologies.

They have responded favourably to rear parking sensors, with almost all the 60-plus respondents in one surveyed saying they would want the technology on their next vehicle.