Senior drivers not the road menaces once expected

Couple in their 60s stand outside RVMore than 1 million seniors now drive Washington's roads, but those aging motorists aren't sparking mass mayhem as once foretold.

The Seattle Times reports that as of December, licensed drivers age 65-plus totaled 1,037,969 in the Evergreen State – nearly 1 in 5 drivers – reflecting their status as the fastest-growing population segment. Why? There's just so darn many baby boomers.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) cites a 2002 study that predicted rising fatalities among senior drivers, whose frail bodies would withstand crashes poorly. Instead, eight years later, fatal crashes among seniors had dropped substantially.

"As a group, they're fitter to drive than previous generations," an Insurance Institute for Highway Safety researcher told The Washington Post. "It seems they're changing what we thought an 'older driver' is."

In part that's because baby boomers benefit from recent safety improvements like side air bags, automatic braking, and crash-avoidance systems.

But left unmentioned in the Times story is a fact that looms large in my mind: NHTSA's most-recent distracted-driving research says that drivers age 60-plus suffer the fewest deaths caused by distraction and smartphone use. (Conversely, the age group that produces the most fatalities is the 20-29 age group, where 27% had fatal crashes while driving distracted.)

So even though boomers' reflexes now lag and their eyesight dims, they're paying attention to the road. That fact likely helps to cut their fatalities.

I fessed up last July about rear-ending a car at age 17 while waving to friends instead of watching the road. The car ahead of me stopped for a light, which I never saw because I was socializing.

Although that occurred 46 years ago, I'll never forget the scary, helpless sensation of looking up to realize I'd never stop in time to avoid that crash. Ever since then I've been wary of taking my eyes off the road.

I later grew quite aware of my own distraction the few times I tried using a cell phone while driving. I sensed danger, probably spawned by my age-17 crash. My friends and family now know, don't bother calling or texting me while I drive. I flat-out won't respond until I'm parked.

Senior couple drive somewhere in WashingtonPerhaps other boomers had their own collisions. Maybe they're receptive to safety-campaign pleas against distracted driving. Or perhaps they possess enough "digital immigrant" versus "digital native" mindset to shun electronics while behind the wheel.

Regardless, less distraction helps keep the predicted "baby boomer mayhem" in check.

And I'm hopeful that by the time our baby boomer bodies degrade to where we truly should give up the keys, we can simply summon autonomous vehicles that will enable us to – in 1960s parlance – "keep on truckin'."

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