The saying that “age is just a number” can ring true in a lot of life’s situations. But how does age play a part in motor vehicle laws, and how does this affect car rental?
In November 2011, a motorcyclist was sideswiped in New York by a 90-year-old woman who was driving a rental. The motorcyclist attempted to sue the woman and the rental company on the grounds that the rental company was negligent in renting to a 90-year-old. In this circumstance, could a negligent entrustment argument be made by showing that the renter was simply “too old”?
Those who attempt to sue for negligence for renting to senior drivers may try to use statistics to further their argument: According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) National Center for Statistics and Analysis, in 2009, the fatality rate in traffic accidents for 80- to 84-year-olds was almost 18 per 100,000 people, which is the second-highest rate compared to all other age categories, just behind 16- to 20-year-olds. (Click charts to enlarge.)
These traffic death statistics show that 16- to 20-year-olds have the highest rate of fatalities in traffic accidents over the last decade. In 2009, 80- to 84-year-olds had the second highest, and 85 and over had the third most traffic fatalities.
Elderly Drivers and Risk
But are elderly drivers really unsafe? Statistics reveal that seniors do have a higher risk of not surviving an accident, as shown in the NHTSA accident fatality rate data. However, “driver involvement” rates in fatal crashes show that drivers over the age of 65 have some of the lowest involvement rates; while 21- to 24-year-olds have the highest.
Breaking down the statistics further, the involvement rate of drivers 85 years and above is about par with the average middle-aged driver. And in looking at the statistics by sex, female drivers above 65 have significantly fewer crashes than males. The same is true for female drivers across all age categories.
Driver involvement statistics look at the age of the driver involved in a traffic accident, but do not distinguish as to who caused the accident. In separating males and females at all ages, female drivers are clearly involved in fewer collisions.
Moreover, according to the NHTSA, drivers 65 and older tend to be involved in fewer alcohol-related, speed-related and nighttime-related accidents compared to any other age group. As well, a 2010 NHTSA report shows a closer accident correlation with health risks associated with getting older, such as poor vision, and not necessarily with age itself.
A lawsuit in the New York motorcyclist case would have had a clearer path to victory under the doctrine of vicarious liability. However, the Graves Amendment, passed in 2005, prohibits states from imposing vicarious liability onto non-negligent rental and leasing companies. The motorcyclist was left trying to prove actual negligence instead, and a lawsuit was never filed.
Before a case could be made, the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles ruled that the rental car company broke no laws because the woman’s driver’s license was valid and current. And besides, the woman had an impeccable driving record.
In looking at court cases addressing age in association with risk in driving a rental, it’s clear that a court would side with the DMV.
For example, in Drummond v. Walker in 1986, a U.S. Federal District Court said that the rental company’s knowledge that the driver was under the age of 21 was not sufficient to establish a case of negligent entrustment. “So in other words, there has got to be more than just a person’s age — there has to be some kind of evidence that they (the rental company) knew the person was unable to safely drive the car,” says Sue Bendavid, a California employment attorney and business litigation lawyer for Lewitt, Hackman in Encino, Calif.