NTSB forum examines growing population of elderly drivers

By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 9, 2010; 7:55 PM

With the number of people 65 or older expected to double in the next three decades, the elderly are driving more often, are taking longer trips and seem rooted in communities where getting around by car is the only option.

The graying of the roads prompted the National Transportation Safety Board this week to host its first forum on aging drivers to analyze the impacts of the change.

Within 15 years, people 65 and older will make up more than 20 percent of the driving population, officials said. Research shows that elderly drivers are getting into fewer deadly automobile accidents, but even those who try to select the safest hours of the day to drive can't escape heavy traffic if they live in congested urban regions where "rush hour" has expanded to encompass more of the day.

"Why aren't they getting into more crashes?" asked Sandra Rosenbloom of the University of Arizona during the conference at the NTSB's L'Enfant Plaza headquarters. "I don't think we have good data on that."

Though highway fatalities have dropped overall in the past few years, the declines have been dramatic among the elderly, declining by half among those over 80.

A national panel assembled for the conference said the absence of additional research left the cause of the difference open to speculation.

"Drivers who drive a lot tend to have fewer crashes than those who don't," said Ann Dellinger of the Centers for Disease Control.

"When there is a crash, older drivers are less likely to die," said Anne T. McCartt of the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety and author of the most recent comprehensive research on older drivers. "We don't have a good explanation for this yet."

In part, she said, it may be because older drivers are more healthy and fit than they once were. The fact that older drivers are more comfortable driving at high speeds than earlier generations of elderly means they spend more time on safer, modern highways.

"I think older people now are very different than they were even five to 10 years ago," McCartt said. "Part of it is health and part of it's lifestyle. What old age is is not what old age used to be."

Though the middle-class retirement havens in the Sun Belt continue to grow, the overwhelming majority of baby boomer retirees are opting to stay in the suburban communities where they raised their families. Life in most of those places requires a car.

"There is tremendous tension between safety and mobility," Rosenbloom said. "As people age in place, the largest percentage of older people live in lower-density places. Cars are the only feasible mobility in many of these places."

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