The Great Crash of 2025

December 1st, 2008
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From the editorial pages of the National Post, November 26, 2008:

Before our society developed its phobias about looming dystopia, magazines used to depict an amazing future: cities of towering glass, jet packs zipping citizens around and cars that were sleek riffs on the Batmobile. Auto shows featured similar teasers – vehicles that went 500 km/h or emitted only drinking water.

We suspect tomorrow’s cars will be decidedly different. The reason is old people – old Baby Boomers to be precise. Today they may rage at codgers from the Greatest Generation grinding to the cottage at 78 km/h, trailing an unwilling cavalcade of 200 vehicles. But based on their history of self-absorption, Boomers themselves will insist on driving into their dotage.

Social attitudes and demographic trends could collide to create traffic crisis. Boomers will still harbour their imperative to “Go where you wanna go, do what you wanna do.” Already there’s a car ad showing decrepit hippies marvelling at VW’s new van to the strains of “Sha-la-la-la-la-la live for today.”

The ad reflects real demographic pressure. Currently seniors make up about 9% of U. S. drivers. Thanks to America’s 75 million Boomers, this category is growing 2.5 times faster than the general population. By 2025 there will be 33 million drivers over 70. Trends in Canada should be roughly proportionate.

Accident statistics are evolving accordingly. Seniors are the second most likely to die in car accidents. One recent study showed that half the fatal crashes between intersections involved drivers over 80. The Elder Law Journal asserts that drivers 75 and older have a 37% higher crash rate than younger drivers. It concludes that “certain characteristics of aging impair driving performance.”

Duh. But these should be sobering numbers for Boomers, many of whom apparently intend to extend “healthy and productive” life indefinitely. This newspaper recently described “death defiers” slashing their caloric intake to hold up time. Articles elsewhere suggest the social cost of ageing Boomers is a “demographic fallacy,” that their better choices will create “younger old people.”

Tomorrow’s Boomers may try to convince the world that “90 is the new 40.” But out on the roads, 40 – kilometres per hour – will become the new 90 thanks to cohorts of trundling Boomers. They’re expected to account for the largest percentage of future “turning left” and “rear end” accidents.

The rumble over seniors’ driving may grow into a full-blown fight over individual freedom versus the power of the state. To answer rational concerns, groups like the Canadian Association of Retired Persons (CARP) support moderate measures like increased driver education. The U. S. National Institute on Aging recommends changes to roadway design.

But we’re more likely to see exaggeration, emotion, junk science, twisted statistics – culminating in bureaucratic overkill. Our society has politicized the peanut. Why should we expect better for old people driving?

CARP is apparently girding its Viagra-enhanced loins for battle. Its Web site already features the eye-catching headline, “Bad driving not age-related.” Not at all? Do they mean a dreamy teenager with a learner’s licence, a 45-year-old car buff who drove professional rallies and a 90-year-old with failing vision pose exactly the same risk?

With one side already digging in its heels, the other will probably attempt to force seniors off the roads just because of their age. That would be tragic. Many seniors continue to be attentive, safe drivers. Personal independence is crucial to their dignity, their sense of well-being and arguably their actual well-being. We’ve heard horrifying anecdotes about ideological family physicians, apparently intent on ridding our streets of anyone over 70, subjecting elderly patients to hellish physical exams when they need to renew their driver’s licence.

So will the public’s risk aversion trump Boomers’ “right” to drive? It doesn’t auger well for social harmony – or future car design. Not only will they not fly, we suspect future vehicles will resemble carnival bumper cars – encircled by thick rubber crash modulators. Interiors will feature two-inch-diameter radio knobs and computer voices yelling directions. They’ll be electrics or hybrids, maxing out at 40 km/h. It’ll still be a freakin’ driving experience, though, with built-in accoutrements for attitude-adjusting substances and mind-blowing sound systems cranked for the near deaf. Maybe there’ll even be Boomer Lanes.

John Weissenberger is a Calgary-based geologist whose 89-year-old father drives to Florida every winter. George Koch intends to keep driving until they pry his cold, dead fingers from the steering wheel.

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By John Weissenberger and George Koch
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