Senior citizens are safer on the road.

They're less likely to be involved in car accidents than they have been in the past. And if they do crash, they're less likely to be hurt or killed.

Those are the conclusions of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which released a study Thursday that found across-the-board improvements for drivers who are age 70 and older.

Researchers say seniors have lowered their rate of involvement in fatal crashes substantially over the past 17 years, and the drop has come at a faster pace than their middle-aged counterparts.

"Older drivers are not only less likely to crash in recent years, they are also sharing in the benefits of newer and safer vehicles," said Anne McCartt, one of the study's co-authors. "It also helps that older people in general are more fit than in years past, with better access to emergency services and health care."

Fatal-crash rates fell 42 percent per licensed senior driver between 1997 and 2012, according to the IIHS, while they fell 30 percent per licensed driver between the ages of 35 and 54. When analyzed through the lens of deaths per vehicle mile traveled, the fatal rates fell 39 percent for seniors and 26 percent for middle-aged drivers.

In addition to improved fitness and vehicle safety, researchers say the recent U.S. recession may have impacted the travel habits of the age groups differently, causing part of the comparative improvement for seniors.

Senior driving has been a sensitive topic after several high-profile accidents in recent years. Regulators are unsure how to address the ability of older drivers without facing age-discrimination complaints. The number of Americans over age 70 is set to skyrocket. Estimates say the age group will jump from 28.5 million in 2011 to 52.7 by 2030.

"This should help ease fears that aging Baby Boomers are a safety threat," McCartt said. "Even crashes among the oldest drivers have been on a downswing."



Pete Bigelow is an associate editor at AOL Autos. He can be reached via email at peter.bigelow@teamaol.com and followed on Twitter @PeterCBigelow.

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