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50+ Americans account for highest-ever share of drivers

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — The nation’s drivers are getting older, with drivers over 50 now accounting for nearly half of all of those behind the wheel — an all-time record.

The Federal Highway Administration said Monday the U.S. now has 93.5 million drivers over 50 — up 22 percent since 2003 — and now accounts for 44.1 percent of all drivers, as of 2013 — the last year for which data is available. That’s up from 43.6 percent in 2012.

At the same time, some younger people are putting off getting a driver’s license or buying a car.

The Transportation Department forecasts than the number of drivers 65 and older will jump 77 percent by 2045. The big jump in older drivers means policy makers need to think about ways of making roads easier for older drivers to navigate.

"From brighter, more visible highway signs and lane markings to pedestrian countdown signals, our research has done much to keep America's aging population safe," said Deputy Federal Highway Administrator Gregory Nadeau. "We are far from done. Because safety is our top priority, we hope to increase transportation investments to build on the gains we've already made."

Drivers over 85 years old remain the fastest growing demographic group, nearly doubling from 1.76 million in 1998 to 3.48 million in 2013 — the second-highest tally. In Michigan in 2013, there were 56,200 men over 85 with a license, and 72,100 women over 85 with a license. They account for about 2 percent of all Michigan residents with driver licenses.

The government also disclosed more details about the nation’s drivers.

In Michigan, women drivers outnumber men — with 51.2 percent of women holding driver licenses, or 3.57 million, compared with 48.9 percent of Michigan men, or 3.41 million men with a license. That’s in part due to the fact that men are more likely to be guilty of drunk driving — and therefore more likely to lose driving privileges.

The total number of licensed drivers in Michigan fell from 7.02 million in 2012 to 6.99 million in 2013.

The number of vehicles on U.S. roads rose slightly to 255.9 million — up from 253.6 million in 2012, including motorcycles.

The total number of cars rose from 111.3 million in 2012 to 113.7 million in 2013. Total trucks on the roads fell to 132.9 million from 133.1 million in 2012. In Michigan, the number of cars registered rose from 3.4 million in 2012 to 3.6 million in 2013 — and trucks rose from 4.1 million to 4.3 million. The number of motorcycles in the state was flat at about 267,000.

In 2013, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said it was mulling a "silver" rating that would assess the safety of the vehicle for older occupants, and a "family" rating for how well it protects rear-seat passengers, including children.

"As the U.S. population shifts in coming years, more vehicle drivers and passengers will be 65 and older," NHTSA said of the proposed silver rating, adding that older vehicle occupants are typically less able than younger people to withstand crash forces.

Ultimately, older consumers could use the information to help them buy vehicles that would be potentially safer for them, NHTSA said. "For example, inflatable seat belts or technologies that help prevent low-speed pedal misapplication may have potential benefits for older occupants," the agency said in 2013.

Elderly driving is a big issue for safety officials. By 2025, more than 20 percent of drivers will be older than 65; by 2030 there will be 57 million elderly drivers, compared with the 32 million on the roads in 2012.

Older drivers are more likely to wear safety belts and avoid drunken driving and speeding. And while they get into fewer crashes, they are more likely to die or be injured when they do.

More senior drivers, who may have few transportation options, are holding on to their licenses longer. Older drivers are three times as likely as motorists ages 35-54 to be killed in a crash, but that's down from 3.5 times in 1997. Eyesight diminishes, especially at night. And some seniors have more trouble turning their necks to check traffic.

DShepardson@detroitnews.com