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The idea of safety in numbers can be consoling; however, the fact that more than 20 million drivers age 70 or older are on the roads may not be especially comforting to the driving public. But in the wake of more stringent restrictions for older drivers, the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety (IIHS) recently issued a report that there has been a decline in fatal crashes involving those drivers.

The IIHS report surveyed fatal crash data for the years 1997 to 2008 and found that fatal crash rates, non-fatal injuries and property damage rates for drivers over 70 had dropped. While worth celebrating, these drastic declines were not expected.

As drivers age, certain things are understood. Reflexes are slower, bodies are frailer, eyesight fails, hearing falters and stamina wavers. Any of these factors can impact an older person's ability to be a safe driver. The decline in crash and injury rates could be based on improved general health of drivers, safer vehicles being on the road, or improved emergency medical and trauma care.

While health may be a contributing factor, another consideration could be the more stringent driving restrictions that many states have set for older drivers. Most states have standard license renewal restrictions.

Some states require older drivers to have shorter renewals terms, such as one to two years. For those drivers over 70 in Arizona, Louisiana, New Hampshire and Illinois, mail-in renewals are not allowed. Other states mandate medical condition reporting or vision tests. In Illinois and New Hampshire, drivers over the age of 75 are required to take a road test in order to have their licenses renewed. In the District of Columbia, older drivers are required to take a reaction test.

Over the next few years, the United States population will experience a shift in which older Americans will make up a larger percentage of the population. With greater life expectancy and advances in medicine, the United States Census Bureau estimates that almost 10 percent of the population will be age 70 or older.

While the IIHS report is encouraging, it does not alleviate the concern over older drivers being on the roadways. Older drivers and older passengers are still more likely than other drivers to be injured or killed in fatal car crashes. While there is disparity across the 50 states regarding license restrictions for the elderly, only time will tell if federal legislation will be needed to protect drivers and American roadways.

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