Report numberRA-MOW-2009-014
TitleOlder people and road safety
SubtitleAn analysis
AuthorsKurt Van Hout
Tom Brijs
Published byPolicy Research Centre for Mobility and Public Works, track Traffic Safety 2007-2011
Number of pages85
Document languageDutch
Partner(s)Universiteit Hasselt
Work packageOther: Risk assessment

Our ageing society raises quite some challenges, e.g. on road safety issues. Because the increasing numbers of older people, also in traffic, more attention will have to be paid to this group of road users. In this report the most important aspects concerning the problem at hand are listed based on a literature review. These findings are completed with an analysis of the Flemish accident data for the period 1991-2005.

Many facets

Traffic has many facets, among which road safety. The number of victims is determined both by exposure, accident risk and the outcome of the accidents. All these factors can also change over time.

Firstly, the problem of road safety with older people is further explored. Based on accident and victim numbers no real problem is established since we find decreasing victim numbers when age increases. We do find that when older people are involved in accidents, they are also usually the victims. They pose no excessive threat to other age groups.

When accident risk is expressed per inhabitant we don’t find an increased risk with older people neither. When the extent of travel for the distinct age groups is considered, we do find an increased risk for older people. This raised risk is more pronounced when the injuries are more severe. The increased injury risk can be the consequence of a higher accident risk. It might however also be the outcome of their increased vulnerability leading to a higher chance of injury with the same crash impact. According to international literature, the high injury risk of older people is to a large extent explained by the vulnerability of older people. With young people on the other hand the increased accident involvement plays an important role. When comparing injury risks between different age groups several authors point out the so-called frailty bias. Since accidents are usually better recorded when they are more severe and older people are more likely to get seriously injured due to their vulnerability, accidents involving older people are more inclined to enter the crash statistics.

Crash factors

Apart from age, accident risk depends on many other factors. This finding complicates a comparison of different age groups. Differences in risk will not be entirely attributable to age differences. The risk also depends on the total amount of travel. Persons who travel few kilometers on a yearly basis usually have a higher accident risk. According to some studies, it is mainly this subgroup of older people showing an increased risk. Older people who still travel a lot, show no real increased risk compared to younger road users covering similar distances. Apart of the total amount of travel, journey characteristics are of importance too. Both location, time and travel mode influence the total risk.

Severity also depends on several factors. Apparently the higher vulnerability coming with a higher age is an important factor. Nevertheless the vehicle occupied by the driver also plays a role (older people more often drive an older car with less safety equipment). Other influences are found in the type of crashes and their impact.

Someday all people will have to deal with functional impairment that is detrimental for driving capability. These impairments won’t show at the same age or to the same extent for all, leading to considerable differences between older people. On the positive side is the favourable attitude towards safe behaviour and the absence of risk taking behaviour (often shown by younger drivers) of older people. Furthermore most older people are aware of their limitations and they will adapt their driving and travel behaviour accordingly. If possible they will avoid situations that are difficult or uncomfortable to them. They are also more likely to drive at lower speeds.

Older people also have different mobility needs. Combined with their self restrictive behaviour this leads to a distinct travel pattern. Therefore it is no surprise that, based on their specific travel pattern combined with the specific limitations, older people also have a distinct accident pattern. Older people are relatively more often involved in crashes at junctions, in crashes within the built-up area, and less often in crashes on highways. They are also (again relatively) less involved in night time crashes, but more in crashes outside peak hours and in crashes under normal conditions. Older people are also less involved in single user accidents (and then more as a bicyclist or pedestrian). Finally older people are relatively more involved in crashes as a vulnerable road user.

Further research questions

Research on accident risk of older people is still too often performed on a high level of aggregation. Many points of interest are likely to disappear in these analyses. Not all older people are exposed to the same high accident risk. Furthermore injury risks differ for different accident types. Further disaggregation may reveal these differences. As such risk profiles can be established as well as more specific risky situations. Risk can hereby be expressed as a function of several factors including the nature of the journeys (location, time and modal choice).

As cited already road safety for older people is not a static fact. Several trends exist that change exposure, accident risk and severity over time. The successive generations are all children of their era. These trends should be captured in order to make future projections. This can be done by cohort studies. Both age related characteristics and generational effects will be included in order to explain road safety.

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The Policy Research Centre for Traffic Safety carries out policy relevant scientific research under the authority of the Flemish Government. The Centre is the result of a

cooperation between Hasselt University, KU Leuven and VITO, the Flemish Institute for Technological Research.


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