Cognitive decline can be dangerous, especially if you’re male or female

March 4, 2021

This column published as "Hidden Dangers" in March 2021 issue

Older drivers get a bad rap for being dangerous drivers, but new research reveals a more menacing threat on our roads: the middle aged.

Sure, drivers over the age of 70 may have slower reflexes, poorer vision, and drive slower than a one-legged dog on tranquilizers. 

However, a recent study from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) found that older drivers are now less likely to be involved in a fatal traffic accident than those 35- to 54-year-old whippersnappers.

While accident fatalities have been decreasing among all age groups over the past three years, they’ve dropped by 43% among elderly drivers and just 21% among middle-aged drivers.

On top of that, elderly drivers are now reporting fewer crashes per mile than middle-aged drivers. 

Some of the credit goes to safety improvements in modern vehicles, like advanced warning systems and side curtain airbags. 

Septuagenarians are also less tempted to text or talk while driving than younger generations. 

“Probably the most important element is that older people have become healthier as a group,” Jessica Cicchino, VP of research at IIHS, told 

Improved health contributes to less visual and cognitive decline over time, making seniors safer drivers. Healthier drivers are also less fragile, making them more likely to survive and recover from an accident that might have killed someone of the same age in years past. 

Crash course

Another IIHS study released last month finds that women are much more likely than men to suffer a serious injury in a crash, and it has nothing to do with physiology.

Researchers found that even though more men are injured in car crashes overall, and even though men tend to engage in riskier behavior and drive more miles on average than women do, women are still at a higher risk of being hurt. 

The study reported that on a per-crash basis, women are 20-28% more likely than men to be killed and 37-73% more likely to be seriously injured.

Much of the heightened risk is related to the types of vehicles women drive and the circumstances of the crashes that they are involved in. 

For example, around 70% of women crashed in cars, compared with about 60% of men. More than 20% of men crashed in pickups, compared with less than 5% of women. 

Within vehicle classes, men also tended to crash in heavier vehicles, which offer more protection in collisions.

Ironically, men are also at lower risk of injury because more often they’re the ones causing the crash.

Researchers found that in front-to-rear and front-to-side crashes, men are more likely to be driving the striking vehicle, making them less likely to be hurt.

Down and dirty

In case you were looking for another reason to complain about your city’s subway system, new research finds that it could be exposing you to massive amounts of air pollution. 

A new study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives compared the air quality inside and outside of 71 underground subway stations in Boston, New York City, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., during morning and evening rush hours. 

Investigators found concentrations of hazardous metals and organic toxins inside 13 New York stations ranging anywhere from two to seven times that of the outdoor air.

In fact, the air pollution inside the Christopher Street Station that connects New Jersey and Manhattan was up to 77 times higher than the outdoor air. Researchers noted that a pollution level that high is more commonly found at a building demolition site.

The air quality in Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C., stations wasn’t as severe as New York, but still showed at least double the concentration of harmful particles as their respective outside samples. 

Researchers believe these pollutants are being thrown into the air by the trains’ brakes and are increasing the risk of commuters and workers suffering from respiratory conditions, heart disease, as well as gradual cognitive decline, which makes for dangerous driving according to the IIHS, resulting in more women being hurt in car crashes. 

Therefore, in the name of public safety, it’s clear that we need to do away with brakes on subway trains!

About The Author: Matthews has been chronicling the unexpectedly humorous side of transportation news since 2000. The stories are all true.