America Is Getting Older. So Are Its Drivers.

People over 65 aren't giving up their licenses, even as teenagers put off a traditional rite of passage.

Who needs a license?

Photographer: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The U.S. population will exceed 400 million by 2060, according to Census Bureau projections released this week. That includes an increase in the older population that will have major implications for American transportation.

While the size of each age group is expected to grow, the teenage population will rise only 8 percent as the group over 65 nearly doubles in size, growing by 45 million and accounting for more than half the total expansion.

Bigger and Older

U.S. population estimates by age

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

By 2040, there will be more people over 65 than under 18. And by 2060, the over-65 cohort will be nearly as big as the 45-to-64 cohort.

A Growing Older Population

U.S. population estimates by age

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

While these are only projections, it’s clear that in the next few decades it will become vital to meet the transportation needs of an aging population. And unlike younger people who increasingly use transport as a service, older people still prefer at least the option to drive themselves.

Since 1995, the number of 16-year-olds who have a driver’s license has dropped by almost 40 percent, while the number of 85-year-olds who have one has increased by more than half.

Diverging Significantly

Licensed U.S. drivers as a percentage of population

Source: U.S. Federal Highway Administration's Office of Highway Policy Information

Today, barely a quarter of 16-year-olds are licensed to drive -- and more than 60 percent of those over 85 are. Licensed drivers as a percentage of population have fallen for every group younger than 55.

Driving Older

Licensed U.S. drivers as a percentage of age group

Source: U.S. Federal Highway Administration's Office of Highway Policy Information

There’s still no guarantee that American teenagers won’t want a car at some point in their lives, or won’t prefer to drive (or walk, cycle, or use a OneWheel or Boosted board or a Lime-S or whatever else might provide transport) rather than be driven. There’s also no way to tell whether all older people with licenses are actively driving; a license is also valid identification, after all.

Perhaps younger people obtain licenses because they want them, while older people keep them because they need them. A younger person, especially in a city, has access to many modes of transport, from parents to hailed cars to dockless bikes. An older person, especially one living alone in a suburb or rural area, will have few options other than a personal car.

Roads filled with fewer young, alert (if distractible) drivers and more older, potentially less aware drivers is probably not an ideal recipe for safety. But it is an opportunity for new mobility services.

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