Are baby boomers the safest on the road?

Blog post posted on 05/12/17 |

The media enjoy talking about age – everybody’s age matters, except our own of course.  We’re always hearing things like “younger drivers are dangerous,” or “older drivers should be taken off the road.”

Of course it isn’t the young who say the first one, or the old who say the second. Sometimes it’s the older drivers who are the bad guys in the spotlight, being discussed, analysed and criticised.

So what’s going on?  Well, interest seems to have been generated by the discovery last summer that there are now over 100,000 people over the age of 90 with a valid driving licence, who are entitled to pop out the front door, leap into their cars and head off into the wild blue yonder, all without a carer or someone younger to drive them.

After World War Two there was a “baby boom” which resulted in a bulge of the population born in the late 1940’s and 1950’s.  That bulge is now heading into the years traditionally regarded as “retirement time”. (We have been warned about this for some time by the politicians, who worry about NHS spending, the pensions industry and some other elements of our complex world it affects).

There are other complications too – the generation involved are living both longer and healthier lives than their predecessors. They are also the generation that embraced car ownership, that saw the independence it brought to everyday life, and that have seen supermarkets replace rows of butchers, bakers and greengrocers (amongst others), partly as a result of the additional mobility that the car brought.

So we have an increased number of older drivers in a world where driving has become necessary to get around, and many of them expect to carry on driving simply because they always have.

The IAM did some analysis a few years back focussing on the age of drivers involved in crashes that caused injury. The older age group (over 70) are fragile so the same injury is far more serious to them than it is to a 25 year old. But as drivers, the over 70’s came in as the safest age group on the road.

We did some more research a few years later and established that they had problems with complex junctions, and dealing with fast moving traffic in circumstances like turning right from a side road onto a high speed dual carriageway.

Of course older drivers tend to manage when and where they drive a lot more than younger drivers, like when to avoid rush hour and late night driving – the obvious high-risk aspects that other drivers have less, or often no choice about. But the fact that they exercise that choice responsibly is a factor to be remembered.

There are always calls for older drivers to be re-tested at set periods. But we know - from government statistics - that they are the safest age group of drivers on the road. So it doesn’t make sense to ask the safest group to go through extra tests, which will result in spending effort and scarce public resource on testing them and chasing them up for appointments. We all know that our faculties and health generally decline with age.  We all see the items on the news about a tragedy involving an older driver who should have given up but didn’t. The thing we forget is what makes news. The old saying “dog bites man” is not newsworthy, but “man bites dog” is out of the ordinary and is therefore likely to be splattered across the media. Road death has become, thankfully, more unusual, with a fraction of the figures it was a few decades ago. As a result, there’s been a bit more news attention to the individual cases that have an unusual twist. 

As an organisation we have seen great, lively and sharp individuals pass the advanced driving test at the age of 90+. We know it’s wise to have sensible plans to deal with those less fortunate in their health and capability, and that’s why we have the mature driver review in place to help individuals make informed decisions.  We have called, along with others, for the government to address the issues there are around older drivers with some strategic focus. So that as a generation who are the most car-based, and have a far higher proportion of drivers than any before them head into older age, are prepared sensibly. We wait patiently for that to emerge. 

In the meantime, let’s remember that older drivers are exactly like younger ones – they are individuals, most of who are being responsible and doing their best to be sensible, but get castigated because of the faults of a minority amongst them.

By Peter Rodger, IAM RoadSmart head of driver behaviour