Baby Boomers Still Driving (But, Mostly, Staying Safe)

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | May 08, 2014

We’re at an interesting time in history. The baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, are the main reason American travel exploded in the 1960s and beyond—our miles traveled are only now leveling off. Boomers, says AARP, “have traditionally traveled more than their counterparts in other age groups.” They cover more miles per day than any other age group.

Older drivers increased their trips 20 percent between 1990 and 2009. ( what happens now, as boomers retire? If you were born in 1946 you’ve just hit 68, and maybe that La-Z-Boy recliner is starting to look better than the driver’s seat. Wait, though, remember this is baby boomers we’re talking about, the brashest generation in history (Woodstock! Vietnam!) and they’re not likely to go gentle into that good night.

A report issued Thursday from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety shows that Americans 65 and older are holding on to their driver’s licenses. Some 84 percent had a license in 2010—compared to only half in the 1970s. Older drivers—a sixth of the total—actually increased their trips by 20 percent between 1990 and 2009, and their miles traveled went up 33 percent.

Seniors aren’t just joyriding—25 percent of men and 18 percent of women are still in the workforce after 65 (“I owe, I owe, so it’s off to work I go”). Commuting past 65 has doubled in the last 20 years.

Seniors have had an admirable driving record overall. ( here’s a stat that stopped me cold: 68 percent of drivers 85 or older are hitting the road five or more days a week. Not many of them are working, but they’re still leading active lives. The flip side of this, of course, is that a lot of Americans are giving up driving. Reports the Huffington Post, "At current growth rates, by 2030 there will be 15 million non-drivers over the age of 65." People are living longer, which means more years after driving ends. That means we'll have to get creative about alternatives, such as paratransit (ride services). 

Now since AAA reports that a whopping 90 percent of older drivers are using prescription medication (and two thirds are on multiple drugs), it might spark a bit of concern about road safety. “This level of medication use does raise concerns, yet evidence indicates seniors are fairly cautious,” said AAA Foundation President and CEO Peter Kissinger. What he means is that gray-haired but potentially still ponytailed seniors are smart, and not driving when drugged up. They’re also driving fewer days a week, and less at night.

Most seniors are taking medication, and many multiple types. ( bottom line, really, is not to worry about this. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reported earlier this year that those older Americans in general, despite driving more, are still less likely to get into an accident than people in their 30s, 40s and 50s.
Americans 80 and over still have the highest fatality rates (with teenagers and people in their 20s following behind), but it used to be far worse. Those fatality rates fell 55 percent between 1995 and 2008. For ages 70 to 74, the rates fell 32 percent. The authors of the IIHS study think the results can be attributed to safer cars and healthier and more alert older drivers.

Some drivers who remember hand cranks are still behind the wheel. (AAA Historical Images/Flickr)Of course, statistics don’t matter much if you’re faced with an older parent who insists on driving after the evidence says to hand over the keys. State laws aren’t much help, because a Connecticut report found only Illinois and New Hampshire requiring road tests for older drivers (when they reach 75). Ten states want vision tests, though at ages ranging from 40 to 80. My mother, at 85, still proudly waves her driver’s license, though she sees about as well as Mr. Magoo (and stopped driving a while ago).

Come to think of it, Mr. Magoo on wheels offers a lighthearted way to end this column. "Road hog!!!":

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