Young women are more likely to die, in otherwise equivalent crashes, than men of the same age, according to a new study by federal safety regulators.
That goes for both women drivers and female passengers between the ages of 21 and 30, reports the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. But NHTSA also says the situation reverses itself in old age, when it’s men who have a significantly higher risk of being killed in crashes.
“Young adult females are more fragile than males of the same age, but later in life women are less frail than their male contemporaries,” said the NHTSA report.
The new study was not meant to determine whether motorists of one sex or another might be more prone to risky behaviors, such as texting or speeding. In fact, numerous reports over the years routinely have found young men are the most likely to let their lead feet get them into trouble. Instead, NHTSA tried to compare how men and women fare when otherwise similar crashes occur.
And for most age groups, women were the most vulnerable. On the whole, regardless of age, women are 17% more likely to be killed.
Between the ages of 21 and 30, in fact, female drivers are 25.9% more likely to be killed, based on a study of 50 years of crashes in the U.S. And the gap jumps to a 29.2% higher likelihood of death for women passengers in that age group.
The 349-page study suggests that young men tend to be brawnier and that their bodies are more likely to safely absorb the forces of a potentially fatal crash. The study also indicates younger women not wearing seatbelts have a greater likelihood of being ejected from a vehicle in a crash, one of the biggest causes of fatal injuries.
The gap between men and women drivers begins to narrow by the age of 35. And it effectively vanishes by retirement age. Women drivers have a better chance of surviving than men between the ages of 65 and 74, in fact.
However, women passengers still are 11.2% more likely to be killed in that age bracket, NHTSA concluded.
Youth clearly has its advantages, meanwhile, for both sexes. NHTSA reported that the risk of death increases about 3% every year of a person’s life, male or female, starting around age 21. Other studies indicate that an elderly woman is four times as likely to die during a crash as a women of 21.
But a 70-year-old male driver’s risk of death increases fivefold.
The study noted what might at first seem a curious anomaly, with the death rate increasing more slowly with age for those driving. But the federal agency suggested that this might simply reflect the fact that, “healthier seniors continue to drive, while less healthy seniors may ride only as passengers.”
The increased risks for the elderly has prompted both automakers and automotive regulators to look for solutions. There have been proposals to create a separate crash rating system to indicate how well seniors might fare in individual vehicles.
Meanwhile, 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 7-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% from the previous year and came in as the lowest number since 1949. But there was a very slight upturn last year, the agency cautioned. Precisely why remains unclear but experts point to a variety of potential factors such as milder weather – which could have led to more driving during winter months – as well as texting and other forms of distracted driving.