Nearly 20 percent of U.S. drivers are over 65: are America's roads ready for them?

November 7, 2016

The Department of Transportation recently published some new statistics on American motorists, and among other things, they suggest that self-driving vehicles couldn't come at a better time. 

That's because the number of older drivers is increasing. At the moment, the U.S. has a total of 217.9 million licensed motorists--more than ever before. Of that number, 42.8 million are 65 or older. That's roughly one in every five.

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And that figure is growing dramatically. In fact, the number of senior drivers has risen by about two percent per in the past year alone, making it one of the fastest-growing demographics in the country. By 2045, the total number of drivers age 65+ will have risen approximately 77 percent from today's numbers.

Compared to seniors, the population of teen drivers is pretty stagnant. In 2015, the number of teens with driver's licenses grew for the first time in two years, reaching 8.73 million. (Just eight years ago, in 2008, there were 10 million teen drivers.)

The number of Millennials on the road isn't growing too fast, either  There are currently 56 million U.S. drivers between the ages of 20 and 34, which is a fairly small increase from the 54.9 million in 2014.

Effects

What does all this mean?

For starters, the data shows once again that teens and Millennials aren't too interested in driving. Maybe that's because it's harder for new drivers to get licenses nowadays. Maybe it's because young people don't have the income necessary to buy cars. Maybe it's because social media has given people other means of socializing than hanging out in person. Or maybe it's because of many different reasons.  

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What we do know is that as drivers grow older, they sometimes face new challenges, like poorer eyesight or changes in motorskills. As America's population of drivers ages, roadways will need to address those challenges--for example, by improving roadway lighting, adding better signage, and lengthening merge lanes. 

Self-driving cars can help, too. Semi-autonomous systems like Tesla's Autopilot can help drivers of all ages by giving them additional sets of eyes (via radar and cameras, for example). They can also intervene when a driver fails to notice an obstacle like another car or a pedestrian. 

Fully self-driving cars will be an even bigger game-changer. When they arrive--which, depending on whom you're talking to, could be anywhere from five to ten years or more--concerns about elderly drivers may all but disappear. That will allow our parents and grandparents to enjoy a bit more independence in their golden years. 

For a list of ways that road infrastructure needs to improve to accommodate older drivers, check out this handbook from the DOT.

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