Aging Boomers Won't Wreck America's Roads: Here's Why

December 4, 2012

We've all heard about Baby Boomers and how they're hurtling toward retirement. We've also read numerous studies that show older drivers are more accident prone when they get behind the wheel.

So, should we fear the thought of this massive generation tumbling into senior-citizendom (joining their parents, who are living longer thanks to the miracles of modern medicine)? Will the highways of tomorrow be strewn with fender-benders and pileups, caused by the Me Generation?

Not at all, says the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. 

In its most recent Status Report (PDF), the IIHS cited a study from its sister organization, the Highway Loss Data Institute. That study explored a wide array of factors affecting accident rates and ultimately determined that, despite America's increasing number of older drivers, the number of collisions should remain stable. In fact, it might even decline.

That seems a little counter-intuitive, but let's look at the study's major findings:

1. Compared to those in middle-age, seniors have substantially higher insurance claim rates, which translates to a higher number of accidents. The trend begins to pick up speed around age 70 and increases with age.

2. That said, seniors are gradually becoming better drivers. In fact, an IIHS study of accidents and fatalities between 1997 and 2009 revealed that among motorists 80 and older, "the fatal crash rate dropped by nearly half, while it fell 23 percent for those age 35 to 54".

3. The reason for that decline aren't clear, but it may be related to something that AAA discovered earlier this year -- namely, that older motorists tend to self-police their driving habits to avoid causing accidents. Whether we want to chalk that up to acquired wisdom or to fear of losing their licenses (and all the inconvenience that would bring) is a matter for debate.

4. America's worst drivers are found at the opposite end of the spectrum, between the ages of 15 and 24. In fact, motorists under 19 have roughly 70% more collision claims than the national average.

5. However, the number of younger drivers is decreasing due to a combination of factors. For example, as panelists at SEMA recently lamented, just 49% of Americans 17 and under have driver's licenses today, compared to 79% in 1978. Moreover, many young people live in urban areas where owning a vehicle is both impractical and unnecessary. And frankly, social media makes in-person interaction (and thus, driving) far less important to today's  teens.

6. Add all that up, and you find an aging population of drivers who are being more mindful of their driving habits, and a smaller population of drivers set to replace them. That would imply that down the road, collision rates will be lower than they are today -- which is on-trend with HLDI's statistics.

We would also like to mention one thing that the IIHS largely avoided in its report, which is the growing number of safety systems available on modern vehicles. Though we may still be years away from fully autonomous Google-branded cars, features like lane-assist, brake-assist, and collision-avoidance are available on many modern vehicles, and before long, we'd expect to see most of those devices come standard. That could reduce collision rates across the board -- not just among older drivers. 

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