WASHINGTON - 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 to host a forum this week on aging drivers to analyze the impact of the change.
Within 15 years, people 65 and older will make up more than 20 percent of the driving population, officials said. Elderly drivers are getting into fewer deadly auto accidents, but even those who 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 NTSB 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.
"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 McCartt of the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety. "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.
"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."
The issue of when to give up driving that has bedeviled generations will become more pronounced given that challenge, Rosenbloom said.