Predictions About Aging Boomer Drivers Didn’t Come True

Thursday, June 18, 2015
Aging baby boomers were supposed to bring a gray-haired danger to U.S. roads, with traffic safety experts predicting years ago that the number of deadly accidents involving older drivers would soar as boomers reached their golden years.

“I remember people talking about 2015 being when we’d really see catastrophic consequences,” said Loren Staplin, a traffic safety consultant for the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Instead, as the first wave of boomers approach their 70th birthdays, older motorists are involved in fewer fatal accidents than a decade ago, even as they hit the road more than previous generations of seniors and hold on to their driver’s licenses longer.

Just as boomers — people born between 1946 and 1964 — made 50 the new 40, they’re transforming the stereotype of the little old lady behind the wheel.

“As a group, they’re fitter to drive than previous generations,” said Jessica Cicchino, a senior research scientist at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. “It seems they’re changing what we thought an ‘older driver’ is.”

The dire predictions made in the early 2000s were based on the assumption that fatal collisions involving older people would continue to rise, as they had since the 1970s, and then soar once the outsized post-World War II generation became increasingly frail and less likely to survive serious crashes.

Instead, boomers have remained healthier and stronger than anticipated. They’ve also benefited from unforeseen safety improvements — particularly side airbags and crash-avoidance systems, such as automatic braking and lane-departure warnings — credited with reducing road fatalities for all ages.

But some traffic safety experts say it’s too soon to celebrate. Despite their overall better health and safer vehicles, older drivers remain disproportionately involved in fatal accidents. It’s not so much because their driving deteriorates, experts say. Rather, their more brittle bones and chronic ailments, such as diabetes and heart disease, make them more likely to die from an accident that might leave a younger person with a few broken ribs.

While the number of vehicular fatalities for all age groups fell by 24 percent between 2004 and 2013, drivers 70 and older saw a less impressive 15 percent drop over that same period, Staplin said.

When the grim predictions of boomer doom didn’t play out, “I think a lot of people drew the conclusion that there wasn’t a problem after all,” said Staplin, managing partner of the traffic safety consulting firm TransAnalytics. “But it’s not quite that rosy either.”

Boomers’ sheer numbers remain worrisome, too. Over the next 35 years, the number of Americans 70 and older is expected to reach 64 million, or 16 percent of the population. That compares with 29 million people, or 9 percent of the population, in that age group three years ago, according to the insurance institute.

Moreover, some experts say the demographic bubble’s true impact won’t be felt on the road for another eight or so years. That’s when the oldest boomers will reach their late 70s — the age at which more recent studies have shown drivers’ odds of contributing to an accident increase significantly. (The chances of a driver at the traditional retirement age of 65 contributing to an accident was about the same as for motorists in their 30s, 40s and 50s, a federal study found. By their 80s, drivers were as likely to contribute to a crash as teen drivers.)

Kathy Sifrit, a research psychologist for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration , said the agency is doing more research into the relationship between driving, chronic health conditions and older people’s activity levels. That includes analyzing the best ways for state agencies to determine who should have their driver’s licenses renewed and whether more active lifestyles result in more physically fit and mentally sharp drivers.

“We want to understand what it is about some older drivers that undermines their ability to drive safely,” Sifrit said. “We don’t quite know how to identify these drivers yet. ... The goal is to help people stay mobile as long as they can, and to do so safely.”

Of course, the question of how long motorists are safe to drive dates back to the Model T. But boomers are prompting a broader debate: How can state licensing agencies now focused on the quality of older drivers’ eyesight better assess those with Alzheimer’s disease or other types of dementia? Are doctors or occupational therapists in a better position to regularly gauge their patients’ physical and mental fitness than a state licensing agency? How well do older drivers handle the additional “cognitive load” of dashboard technology, such as navigation systems?

Adding to the urgency, experts say, is that many boomers are among the first generation to spend much or all of their lives in the post-World War II auto-centric suburbs, where taking transit or walking is often inconvenient or difficult. They also expect to work and remain active longer than their parents did, increasing their need to drive longer or have other ways to get around.

“There are a lot of us who are going to outlive our ability to drive,” said Ann Dellinger, transportation safety chief at the Center For Disease Control’s Injury Center in Atlanta. “When that happens, what happens to our transportation options? I think we need some creative minds to look at those options.”

Joseph Coughlin, director of the AgeLab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said communities need to begin expanding shuttle van service for seniors and exploring other ways to help them get around, such as using school buses during their midday down times.

Older people’s transportation needs permeate entire families, Coughlin said, because many of those who don’t have good alternatives to driving will depend on their children to get around. He said studies have shown that older people’s ability to go where they want to (say, out for ice cream with a friend) versus only where they need to (a doctor’s appointment) is key to preventing depression and physical illness.

“Really, the older driver issue isn’t just about safety,” Coughlin said. “It’s also about the emerging mobility gap in the U.S. A baby boomer is turning 69 every eight seconds. When driving is no longer possible or comfortable or safe, you have a real crisis for families, for individuals and, frankly, for society.”

Asking boomers in their 60s if they consider themselves to be “older” drivers draws laughs and even a sense of embarrassment. At a recent AARP driver safety class in Virginia, several participants said they took the class to qualify for their auto insurance company’s “safe driver” discount, not because they’ve come to doubt their driving abilities. None of the participants of boomer age were willing to be quoted by their full names.

One 65-year-old man said he thinks of “older” drivers as his 89-year-old mother, whom he had to convince last year to stop driving after she hit the wall of her garage.

“When our parents turned 65, they wanted to sit back and watch television,” said the retired federal worker, who would only give his name as Mark. “I want to go out and grab everything life has to offer.”

Baby boomer Rick Tydings, 63, of Olney, Maryland, said he’s counting on the notion that autonomous vehicles will be widespread by the time he becomes unable to drive — a time he sees as “way in the future.”

“It won’t be an issue,” Tydings, who works in sales and marketing, said recently after updating his car registration at a Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration office in Gaithersburg. “You’ll just get in your Google car or Audi or Mercedes and say ‘Take me to Giant.’ ”

And how long does he plan to keep up his hobby of riding motorcycles? Tydings laughed. “I hope,” he said, “it’s forever.”

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