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 require adults to use seatbelts. In addition, federal law requires airbags in all new automobiles. 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 in this chapter). 

Many vehicles are equipped with new technologies. For example, navigation systems are common, and some enable crash response. Such systems can benefit drivers, but they also can create distractions that create 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. That makes 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 (see also Vehicle Automation and Fully Self-Driving Cars in this chapter). These technologies include automatic emergency braking, reverse monitoring systems, and warning systems for blind spots, lane departure, and forward collisions. 
  • 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. 



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. This should include new technologies that may improve the effectiveness of airbags or otherwise improve outcomes for vulnerable populations, including older adults.