NTSB Identifies Baby Boomers as a Major Road Hazard

By Chris Haak

As we know, the Baby Boom Generation – those born in the postwar period between 1946 and 1964 in the US – is getting older, and as the baby boom goes, in many ways, so does the United States.  As members of this group enter various stages of their lives, the enormous size of their ranks mean that they have a profound impact on culture and the economy.

Just think back to the early years – say, the early 1960s – as that generation was entering school age.  Their numbers required the construction of new schools (ever notice how so many public schools are 1960s-vintage?)  Then in 1964, as the first boomers hit age 18, there was a car called the Ford Mustang making its debut at the New York World’s Fair that was perfectly catered to the idealistic, independent youth.  And that car sold like hotcakes.  This generation actively participated in the muscle car era, and consumed a considerable amount of the world’s natural resources as they entered their prime earning years and purchased more and more SUVs.

As we prepare to turn the calendar to 2011 in a month and a half, the oldest baby boomers – those born in 1946 – begin to hit age 65.  Some boomers are already retired, but the traditional retirement age of 65 seems likely to mark the beginning of a wave of retiring baby boomers (interestingly, baby boomers cannot receive full retirement benefits at age 65; their retirement age is 66 for those born between 1943 and 1954, rising gradually to age 67 for those born 1960 and later.  Today, there are about 72 million baby boomers still alive, and their aging is already triggering a boom in long-term care facility construction, healthcare costs (Medicare and Social Security are both running low on funds, thanks to this coming demographic wave).

Something that hadn’t gotten much publicity, though, is the notion that 72 million people hitting age 65 and above over the next 19 years certainly means there will be a considerable number of older drivers among the ranks of all motorists.

There are plenty of stereotypes about older drivers, and many of the often hold true, at least in individual situations.  When you see news about a woodgrained Buick Century driving the wrong way down I-95, do you really expect it to be a 35 year old behind the wheel?  How about less dramatic happenings, like driving ten below the limit in the passing lane with the left turn signal flashing for mile after mile?

Without performance-enhancing drugs (ahem, Barry Bonds), we all lose physical abilities as we age.  In my 20s, I used to have 20/20 vision, but now in my 30s, I need glasses to hit that number.  My reaction times are slower and my hearing isn’t as good as it once was.  For our first few decades behind the wheel, the rate at which we gain experience and maturity exceeds the rate of our physical decline, so 40 year olds are safer drivers than 20 year olds who are in the best physical condition they’ll ever find themselves in.

But eventually (and unfortunately), age catches up.  It’s up to older drivers, and their families and physicians, to remain vigilant and aware of one’s limitations.  If you have trouble seeing at night, don’t drive at night.  If you have trouble seeing, don’t drive.  If you have trouble hearing even with a hearing aid, don’t drive.  If you have narcolepsy, epilepsy, depth perception problems, or extremely slow reflexes, don’t drive.

Against this backdrop, the National Transportation Safety Board convened a two-day forum on the subject of elderly driver accidents earlier this week.  The forum marked the first time in 40 years that the agency has looked at safety issues involving older drivers.  The Detroit Newsreported that Debbie Hersman, Chairwoman of the NTSB, said the agency is considering a number of approaches to make driving safer for older drivers.  These might include any combination of recommendations from vehicle design changes to road improvements.

Older drivers are keeping their licenses longer than they have in the past.  Roughly 78 percent of people over 70 still have driver’s licenses; that is up from 73 percent as recently as 1997.  Drivers over 70 are three times as likely to sustain a fatal injury in a crash than are drivers in the 35-54 age group.  Even so, that is an improvement over the 3.5 times greater likelihood experienced in 1997.

Some of the vehicle improvements that might improve older drivers’ odds include inflatable seat belts, about to be launched as an option in the all-new 2012 Ford Explorer.  According to Stephen Rouhana, a Ford researcher, the same accident force that gives a 25 percent chance of chest injury to a 20 year old would have a 90 percent chance of injuring a 70 year old, simply because older bodies are more fragile and less able to bounce back.  The inflatable seatbelts could reduce chest injuries by 40 percent, according to Ford.

Road design changes that help accommodate older drivers’ abilities include “Michigan Lefts” (indirect left turns after an intersection on major roads) and roundabouts.  Both features are becoming increasingly common.

A common rallying cry among those concerned about seniors’ driving habits is to require more frequent license renewals after a certain age.  Other suggestions are requiring vision tests past a certain age, or even requiring older drivers to re-take the on-road portion of their driving test once they reach a certain age.  Thus far, only New Hampshire and Illinois require re-testing after age 75, but at least 25 states in all have different licensing requirements for older drivers, which generally encompass some of the concepts mentioned a moment ago.

At the forum, research was presented that showed that the average male driver lives six years past when he should stop driving, and the average female lives ten years after when she should have stopped driving.  As much as I love driving, I can appreciate the dilemma that these senior citizens are facing, though.  It has to be a considerable blow to give up your independence on the day you give up your license and keys.  But killing yourself – or worse, others – is far worse than having to take the bus or to depend on others for a ride.

Author: Chris Haak

Chris is Autosavant's Managing Editor. He has a lifelong love of everything automotive, having grown up as the son of a car dealer. A married father of two sons, Chris is also in the process of indoctrinating them into the world of cars and trucks.

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