May 30, 2013 at 1:00 PM ET
Young women are more likely to die in a car crash than a man their age, because they are more fragile, according to a report this month by federal safety regulators. That changes when both reach old age, however, when men are less robust and less likely to survive a crash.
The study, authored by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, was not meant to determine which gender is more like to text or speed – risky behaviors that lead to crashes, although research has found that young men are more likely to speed. Rather, NHTSA tried to compare how men and women fare when otherwise similar crashes occur.
Overall, women were the most vulnerable, 17 percent more likely to be killed.
Between the ages of 21 and 30, female drivers are 25.9 percent more likely to be killed, based on a study of 50 years of crashes in the U.S. Women passengers are even more likely to die in a crash than male passengers – 29.2 percent more likely.
The 349-page study suggests that young men tend to be brawnier and that their bodies are more likely to absorb the forces of a potentially fatal crash. The study also says that younger women who don’t wear seatbelts are more likely to be thrown out of a car, one of the biggest causes of fatal injuries.
By 35, women and men are more even in terms of likelihood of dying in a car crash. By retirement, women drivers have a better chance of surviving than men between the ages of 65 and 74.
Older female passengers, however, are still 11.2 percent more likely to be killed than men, the NHTSA found.
That’s not to say that older women are less likely to die in a crash than younger women: Youth has its advantages for both sexes.
The risk of death increases about 3 percent every year of a person’s life, male or female, starting around age 21. Other studies have found that an elderly woman is four times more likely to die during a crash than a 21-year-old woman.
For men, the increase is even more extreme, which could explain why the gap between men and women closes later in life. A 70-year-old male driver’s risk of death increases five-fold.
The federal agency suggested this might simply reflect the fact that, “healthier seniors continue to drive, while less healthy seniors may ride only as passengers.”
The increased risk for the elderly has prompted automakers and regulators to look for solutions. There have been proposals to create a separate crash rating system to indicate how seniors fare in individual vehicles.
Ford Motor Co. has been expanding the use of a new system that combines airbags and seatbelts into one unit. The device is now offered on several Ford models including the Flex “people mover.” It is an option for the middle row of the seven-passenger vehicle, where older passengers are more likely to sit, the company says.
Regardless of age, automotive fatalities have fallen sharply over the last half century. According to NHTSA, highway deaths dipped to 32,367 during 2011. That was down 1.9 percent from the previous year and came in as the lowest number since 1949. There was a slight upturn last year, although why remains unclear. Experts surmise that texting while driving and milder weather could be reasons.
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