Chicago — The New York Times is reporting that drivers 70 and older are keeping their licenses longer and driving more than previous generations. And while this may be good for aging baby boomers looking to stay active, the trend has led to speculation about an escalated risk of car accidents.

The Times story investigates new research released by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), which may help alleviate those concerns. IIHS data reveals that fatal car accidents involving older drivers actually has dropped precipitously in the last decade.

Compared with middle-age drivers (ages 35 to 54), drivers 75 or older have far higher death rates per-mile-traveled (as do drivers under 20), the Times reports. Death rates also jump significantly after age 80. Despite this seemingly conclusive contrasting evidence, it doesn't necessarily mean that older drivers are more likely to crash.

The reason behind this, according to the story, is that while crash rates are slightly higher for older drivers, their increased risk for a fatal car accident is explained by the fact that they tend to be more frail.

Even with this taken into account, fatalities per capita among older people have decreased 35% since 1975, and are now at their lowest level. From 1997 to 2006, the report says, the yearly decline in fatal crashes among middle-age drivers was 0.18 per 100,000 licensed drivers. By comparison, the decline for drivers ages 70 to 74 was 0.55 fatal crashes per 100,000 licensed drivers, and for those over 80 it was 1.33.

IIHS goes on to postulate why older drivers' risks continue to decline, highlighting that they may simply in better physical and mental shape than their counterparts a decade ago. In addition, it says driving patterns among older adults have changed, leading to more highway driving, which is found to be safer than driving on local roads. Older drivers also may be more likely to wear seat belts or to drive safer cars.

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