Vehicle Design and Safety


Older adults are more likely than younger people to die in crashes of the same severity because of their increased frailty. Fatalities and injury severity can be reduced by:

  • increased seat belt use,
  • front and side airbag installation, and
  • safer vehicle design.

All states except New Hampshire mandate the use of seatbelts. In addition, federal law requires airbags in all new automobiles. Although airbags generally increase people’s safety, they can harm certain vulnerable populations, such as frail older adults, children, and pregnant women. Providing information about the potential harms of airbags is therefore critical. Research into how airbags can be made safer for vulnerable passengers is important.

Vehicle design features that increase comfort and safety can also improve mobility for older adults. For example, certain designs can make it easier to get in and out of a vehicle. A number of products and innovations can improve safety for individuals who are experiencing functional changes. These include hazard-warning and collision-avoidance technologies (see also Vehicle Automation and Fully Self-Driving Cars section of this chapter).

Many vehicles are equipped with new technologies, such as GPS or equipment that enables remote navigation and crash response. Although such technology can benefit drivers, it may also make driving more complicated or distracting. It may even increase safety risks. However, design features can minimize the negative consequences of using multiple new technologies. Research on the safety risks of multiple in-vehicle technologies is limited.

The National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration conducts crash tests every year and rates how well they protect drivers and passengers during front- and side-impact collisions. These ratings provide a useful basis for comparing vehicle safety. A high percentage of crashes involving older adults are side-impact collisions, making it particularly important that older adults who purchase cars have information about the best protection from such incidents.

People age 65 and over use intercity and charter buses for travel more than any other age group. These buses are subject to federal and state safety requirements. As of 2016, federal regulations require that newly-constructed charter buses install passenger seatbelts. However, concerns about safety remain. And state safety regulations vary considerably.



Ensuring safety

Policymakers should promote passenger safety through measures such as:

  • active promotion of seatbelt use;
  • increased use of advanced vehicle technologies, such as automatic emergency braking, reverse monitoring systems, and warning systems for blind spots, lane departure, forward collisions (see also Vehicle Automation and Fully Self-Driving Cars section of this chapter); and
  • stricter automobile safety standards, including for vulnerable vehicle occupants.

Federal authorities should continue to authorize seat belt and occupant-protection incentive grants for the states.

Airbags: The federal Department of Transportation and the states should require automakers to fully disclose the possible consequences of airbag use by vulnerable vehicle occupants and should provide public information and education on ways to make airbags safer.


States should ensure the safety of intercity and charter vehicles. This should include testing of occupant-protection systems. Federal researchers should examine ways to maximize the safety of vehicles, including new technologies that may improve the effectiveness of airbags or otherwise improve outcomes for vulnerable populations, including older adults.