Healthy Living

Vulnerable Drivers Need Safer Cars

Teenagers and people over age 65, the two groups most at risk for car accidents and injuries, are more likely to drive less safe cars. That is the finding of a new study from the Center for Injury Research and Prevention (CIRP) at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, the first large-scale, statewide analysis of vehicle safety criteria.

“Survey studies had previously found that younger drivers were more likely to drive vehicles that were older, smaller and lacked certain safety features,” Kristi Metzger, PhD, the study’s lead author said in a press release. “But there had yet to be a population-based study that really explored this question for different ages and income levels,”

The study analyzed data from the New Jersey Safety and Health Outcomes warehouse that included all crash and licensing details between 2010 and 2017. Researchers then cross referenced those statistics with information from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Product Information Catalog and Vehicle Listing to identify 89% of the cars involved in crashes.

Using each car’s Vehicle Identification Number (VIN), the team determined the model year and type, and whether the car had safety features like electronic stability control, engine horse power, and front, side, and curtain airbags.

People Are Hanging on to Their Cars for Longer

The researchers found that teens in low-income neighborhoods drove cars that were almost twice as old as their counterparts in more affluent areas. Likewise, older adults from high-income zip codes were 35% more likely to have vehicles with side airbags than their counterparts from low-income neighborhoods. The study also revealed that drivers of all ages from poorer communities were disproportionately represented in fatal crashes.

A 2018 U.S. Energy Information Administration study found that “household vehicle turnover has slowed since 2009.” Car and Driver magazine estimated that households with incomes less than $25,000 drive 13-year-old-cars, while families who make more than $100,000 tool around in 9-year-old cars.

“All drivers should strive to be in the safest vehicle they can afford, regardless of age or income level,” Dr. Metzger, a CIRP statistical scientist noted in the press release. “There are many vehicles available with key safety features that won’t break the bank, some for less than $7,000.”

Teens and Adults Both at Risk

Teenagers and older adults may have aging cars in common. But they take separate off ramps when it comes to why both demographics are involved in so many crashes.

The main reason for teen crashes is inexperience behind the wheel. The National Safety Council estimates that half of all teenagers will be involved in a car crash before graduating high school.  “They struggle judging gaps in traffic, driving the right speed for conditions, and turning safely, among other things,” according to the NSC’s website.

In 2017, 2,364 teens (16 to 19) were killed in car accidents and approximately 300,000 were treated in emergency rooms for injuries.

To better protect teen drivers, the NSC recommends parents enforce rules about the number of passengers in the car, driving at night, and cell phone use while driving.

Older drivers face different challenges. For starters, there are more senior drivers on the road. In 2017 the CDC estimated that there were 44 million licensed drivers 65 and older, a 63% increase from 1999. Yet, the American Automobile Association says older drivers are fairly safe behind the wheel. They wear seat belts, abide by speed limits, and generally don’t drink and drive.

But with aging come slower reflexes, diminished eye sight, reduced flexibility, weaker muscles, and a plethora of other medical conditions and medications that can impinge on driving skills. Consequently, when an older driver is in an accident, they are more likely to be injured or killed. In fact, notes AAA, “with the exception of teen drivers, seniors have the highest crash death rate per mile driven, even though they drive fewer miles than younger people.”

So, what does this have to do with cars themselves? Since both teens and seniors are at higher risk of getting into an accident, they need cars that will protect them. While older cars aren’t dangerous just because of their age, they may not be the safest bet if they aren’t maintained or if they don’t have safety technology, like air bags. Some car manufacturers are also working on systems that block cell phone use while the car is in motion, to make driving a bit safer for those tempted to text and drive.

Finding ways to get drivers into affordable, safer, more technologically advance cars should be explored as a way to reduce injuries and fatalities among teen and senior populations, the study authors noted. Vehicle safety, it concludes, “is not exclusively tied to more expensive or new vehicles.”

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