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A Boom on Texas Roads

Think older drivers might be a problem now? Wait for the baby boomers, who are reaching retirement age.

Interstate 10 east of downtown in Houston, Dec. 6, 2011.

The baby boom — that fat lump that has been moving through the demographic snake since the end of World War II — is now made up of people between 45 and 65 years old, give or take.

They are starting to retire, prompting some of the growing conversations about pensions. Their bodies are getting old, which explains some of the ballooning advertising about drugs for this or that. Seen all the hearing aid ads in the paper? Products for gray hair? Couples sitting in bathtubs next to lakes?

As of 2010, 13 percent of the nation’s population was 65 or older. By 2030, demographers reckon that group will account for 19.3 percent of the population. Boomers are not babies anymore — and there are some public policy ramifications.

Steve Murdock — a nerd of the best kind, and of the highest order — is one of those boomers. More to the point, he is a demographer, now at Rice University, with notches on his résumé that include heading the U.S. Census Bureau and working as the first official demographer of the state of Texas.

He is the kind of guy who shows up for a one-hour presentation with 150 slides in his PowerPoint deck. He does not show them all, but they are there if someone asks a question best answered by a screen full of numbers or a graphic.

Much of it seems esoteric, but Murdock has held the attention of policy makers for years because numbers drive policy. How many babies will there be? How many schools do we need, and where? How do you guess at caseloads for medical providers?

Here is one: What about traffic, and old people?

Murdock sees the number of drivers growing, which makes sense since the overall population will grow. Since the population will be older over all, he projects the number of drivers per 1,000 residents will grow. More adults per 1,000 means more drivers per 1,000.

And the fastest growth of any age group will be the gray-hairs — drivers 65 or older. Depending on the growth model for Texas — what you think migration will do, whether you think the state will be as magnetic as it has been for the last two decades — the over-65 driving population will grow by anywhere from 218 percent to 268 percent between 2005 and 2040. Put another way: A population that numbered about 1.8 million in Texas in 2005 will grow to somewhere between 5.7 million and 6.6 million in 2040.

That group is part of a bigger issue: If the state continues to grow like it has, we will need more roads. “We’re adding lots of bodies to roads that are already congested,” Murdock said.

And lots of them are older bodies. Texas, as with some other states, has a different set of laws for its oldest drivers; after age 85, for instance, they have to get their licenses renewed every 2 years instead of every 6, and everyone who is 79 or older has to do it in person instead of by mail or online.

That might get another look as more drivers get old. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says fatal crashes per mile driven “increase noticeably starting at age 70-74.”

The bright spot in the demographics-as-traffic-policy is on the other end, where the most dangerous drivers live. The number of drivers under 25 will have the lowest growth rate on the charts through 2040. Their crash rate per mile is five times the rate of seniors.

State laws might change as time progresses. Older drivers might turn out to be no real problem. The expected congestion on those roads might drive people to other forms of transportation. There is some evidence that elderly drivers self-police when they start losing skills, and do not drive as much.

Murdock’s focus is less on the age of the drivers — though he thinks the aging of his generation poses an interesting set of questions for future lawmakers — and more on the growth of the population, of their cars and of the need for roads.

The policy folks will have to work out what needs to be built and who is going to pay for it and who gets to drive on those roads once they are built. They will not be deciding alone: every politician knows that older voters vote like crazy.

The numbers drive policy, but they drive politics, too.

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