WASHINGTON — Silver could take on a whole new meaning when it comes to car shopping. With more older drivers on the road, the federal government is contemplating a "silver car" rating system that will help identify which cars better protect elderly drivers and passengers in a crash.
Federal highway safety officials will investigate the possibility of such a rating system as part of a five-year plan designed to reduce the number of fatal and injury-causing accidents among older drivers.
The plan, released Thursday, also called for more research into how technology could prevent crashes or reduce their severity. One promising technology would warn drivers when their car has moved outside its lane. Another would automatically apply the brakes when a car is destined to ram the vehicle in front of it.
Last year, some, 5,560 people over the age of 65 were killed as a result of motor vehicle crashes, a 3 percent increase from 2011. Another 214,000 were injured, a rise of 16 percent. Aging results in increased frailty, making it harder to recover from injuries sustained in a crash.
The longer term trend has been more favorable.
About one in five drivers, or 35 million, currently are 65 or older. The aging of the 77 million baby boomer generation — those born between 1946 and 1964 — will add to the number of older drivers on the road.
"Those who will reach 65 in the coming decade are projected to drive more miles and are expected to continue driving later in life than previous generations," the plan said
The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration plan focused on helping them drive as safely and as long as possible rather than trying to restrict their driving access.
Outside safety analysts said the plan's emphasis on technology was welcome because it should lead to more confident and safe driving. Lane departure warnings and smart headlights that adjust based on distance to traffic are already available, but they are often considered a luxury item. Such technology will become more and more prevalent in the coming years, said Jodi Olshevski, director of the Hartford Center for Mature Market Excellence.
"The technology is evolving so quickly that understanding more about how they can benefit older drivers is really critical," Olshevski said.
Olshevski said the plan's emphasis on keeping drivers on the road will help more of the elderly maintain their independence.
"Being able to get in your car and go where you want to go as long as possible and as safely as possible is important to quality of life as we age," Olshevski said.
The plan also seeks to increase seat belt use among the elderly because the consequences of being unbelted are worse for them. For comfort reasons, some of those who use seat belts don't use them appropriately.
In the coming months, NHTSA it will test public service messages aimed at increasing seat belt use and provide educational materials about ways car owners might be able to increase the comfort and fit of their seat belts.