Solution to growing number of older motorists dying in motor vehicle accidents: Self-driving vehicles

To address the increasing numbers of older motorists dying in motor vehicle accidents, a public health expert at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis has a high-tech solution: hands-free driving.

A study looking at deaths resulting from right-angle motor vehicle crashes shows the elderly are at an extreme survival disadvantage compared to their younger counterparts, said Timothy D. McFarlane, a visiting lecturer in epidemiology.

An earlier study of head-on collisions reached the same conclusion.

“Our findings suggest that, because of the growing elderly population, we will see an increase in the number of elderly deaths due to motor vehicle crashes,” McFarlane said.

According to McFarlane, the number of drivers who are 65 or older dying in motor vehicle crashes is expected to jump 44 percent between 2016 and 2030.

The jump reflects growing numbers of elderly people, not an increase in the rate at which elderly die in motor vehicle accidents.

Tim McFarlane

Tim McFarlane

The reasons the elderly are at extreme risk compared to younger motorists are frailty and co-morbidity, McFarlane said: “If you end up in the hospital with a crush injury or traumatic brain injury and you also have diabetes and high blood pressure and are on blood thinners, you now have a long problem list.”

Although the number of motor vehicle crashes decreased dramatically during the 20th century as a result of technological innovations and other prevention measures, the number of crashes in recent years has remained about the same.

“There are 30,000 deaths from motor vehicle crashes and about three million injuries annually,” McFarlane said. “It is a pervasive public health problem.”

McFarlane says a new technological innovation could impact those numbers, particularly as they concern the elderly: autonomous vehicles.

McFarlane believes autonomous vehicles will do more to prevent elderly vehicle-crash fatalities than other innovations such as automatic braking and lane-departure and front-end-collision warnings.

“Those still rely on the driver to act,” he said. “They are not as good of an answer as are autonomous vehicles.”

“Human operators are responsible for an estimated 90 percent of all accidents,” McFarlane said. “So if you can remove the human operator, it’s logical to believe that you would be preventing a lot of the accidents.”

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