The number of Washington state drivers age 65 or older has surged since 2010 by 41 percent — and at nearly three times the overall rate of increase among licensed drivers here.

Share story

There’s been such heavy focus on the wave of millennials flooding into our area, it’s easy to forget that it’s seniors who are the fastest-growing segment of Washington’s — and even Seattle’s — population.

In 2015, the state hit a demographic milestone: The number of folks age 65-plus hit 1 million.

And the number of them who drive? That just passed the same milestone, according to an analysis of records from the state Department of Licensing.

As of December, there were 1,037,969 Washingtonians age 65-plus with active driver’s licenses. Their ranks increased by more than 46,000 over the course of last year, passing the 1 million mark in the process.

There’s no mystery here. Aging baby boomers — that massive generation born between 1946 and 1964 — are swelling the ranks of our senior population. The oldest boomers are now in their early 70s. And, as with everyone else, nearly all of them get behind the wheel.

That’s why, since the start of the decade, the number of senior drivers in Washington has surged by 41 percent, which is more than three times faster than the overall rate of increase.

Double-digit growth rates can be seen in every county in the state. In Clark, San Juan and Thurston counties, the number of senior drivers grew by more than 50 percent. Even in Columbia County — it’s the only county in Washington where the total driving population is shrinking — seniors with licenses still increased by 18 percent.

Of the 5.8 million licensed drivers in Washington, nearly 1 in 5 now is age 65 or older. Jefferson County, where Port Townsend is located, tops the state for the share of drivers who are senior citizens, at 39 percent. King County, though, is one of the state’s youngest counties. Drivers age 65-plus are just 14 percent of the total here.

Is the surge in older drivers a safety concern?

Traffic-safety experts predicted years ago that the aging boomers would spike the number of fatal road collisions, but those fears haven’t materialized. That’s due in part to the improved safety technology of cars, which has helped reduce the number of deadly crashes. And boomers, as it turns out, are in better physical shape than past generations of seniors, which helps their driving abilities.

Still, as fit as they are, they’re not as young as they used to be. With aging comes slower reflexes, a more limited range of motion, and often an increased use of prescription medications — all things that can have an impact on driving ability.

Data show that once drivers are in their 70s, the rate of crashes per vehicle mile traveled starts to climb. And crashes are more often deadly for older drivers, simply because they are less likely to survive the impact than a younger person is.

Unlike some other states, Washington does not have any safety initiatives in relation to senior drivers. But in her role as program manager for the Washington Traffic Safety Commission, Angie Ward is tasked with keeping a pulse on senior-driver issues, and she says at this point, the increase in senior drivers hasn’t been an issue.

“Older drivers are pretty good about taking themselves off the road and minimizing their driving — not driving at night, not going longer distances,” Ward said. And she points out that the youngest drivers — those 16 to 25 — are responsible for nearly three times the number of fatalities on Washington roads as drivers age 70 and older.

If boomers are like previous generations, their car travel will taper off as they enter their golden years. Then again, boomers are famous for defying expectations. They’ve already redefined middle age — “50 is the new 40” — so it remains to be seen if they’ll slow down in their new phase of life.

Most of us, eventually, will have to surrender the car keys. American women outlive their ability to drive safely by 10 years, on average. For men, it’s seven years. That’s a big problem because so many of us live in car-centered communities with inadequate public transportation. Not being able to drive often leaves a senior marooned, and that prompts a lot of folks to keep driving after they no longer should.

Washington drivers have no restrictions based on age alone. When drivers renew their licenses in person, they have to take a vision test and are asked some questions about their health. The Department of Licensing can require an individual’s driving skills to be re-evaluated based on certain factors, including physical or mental condition. In some circumstances, older drivers maybe have restrictions placed on their license, such as being permitted to drive only during daylight hours, or prohibited from freeway driving.