Gently? No. But Please Go Safely Into That Good Night

Gently? No. But Please Go Safely Into That Good Night


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    These two charts show that drivers over 75 suffer approximately the same, or worse, fatality rate as drivers under 25. | July 01, 2010

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Is there something ironic about a column titled "Carmudgeon" that goes after elderly drivers? Actually, "going after" is too strong of a description, but I do intend to broach a subject near and dear to my heart — political power of the "over 50" crowd be damned.

The inspiration for this column comes primarily from my own experiences with elderly drivers, both directly and indirectly, as well as from two facts:

  1. The population, by and large, is getting older, so the competence of elderly drivers will become a far greater issue in the coming years.
  2. There has been a dramatic upturn in the number of injuries and deaths caused by elderly drivers in recent years.

Now, the argument against infringing on the rights of elderly drivers goes something like this: Though elderly, these people are still vital members of our society and to take away their right to drive greatly adds to their already growing feelings of dependency and loss of control.

The counter argument, and the one I tend to run with, goes something like this: The average vehicle weighs between 2,000 and 4,000 pounds. At that weight, a driver is piloting one of the most potentially deadly weapons on the planet. Why wouldn't we want to do a reasonable job of confirming that every driver is capable of properly controlling a vehicle? For instance, with young drivers, we have very specific laws about training requirements, certification and the like. Young drivers (under 25) represent the highest accident fatality rate among all drivers. Guess what group represents the second highest? Yup, drivers over 70. In fact, the fatality rate for drivers 85 and older is nine times as high as the rate for drivers aged 25 to 69, and even eclipses the rate for 16-year-old drivers (see chart).

My simple and straightforward solution is this: At a predetermined age (say between 65 and 70) you have to get your license renewed every year. And, as with the certification for young drivers, you don't take just a written and sight test, you also have to pass a driving test. Basically, I'm saying that while we shouldn't take the elderlys' right to drive away, we should closely monitor their driving ability once they enter the age bracket that has been shown to have a higher accident rate. With the current system of testing them every five years in most states (and with no driving component involved), plenty of drivers are passing the no-brainer vision and written tests, and then driving for five years while their bodies age. Anyone want to argue that from 70 to 75 the average person's motor skills don't change? Certainly we'll never catch every aging driver at the perfect moment when his or her driving skills have just become insufficient to operate a vehicle safely. But, this system would come far closer to such a goal than the system we currently use does.

Now, do I look forward to the day when my parents' or even (gasp!) my own motor skills are incapable of allowing me to drive a car safely? No, but I'll take that consequence over driving through a bank wall and killing a five-year-old child or cutting off a motorcyclist and crippling him for life any day. In the last six months, both of these tragedies occurred in Los Angeles at the hands of elderly drivers, and I'm sure this type of incident will become more prevalent with the aging population and current testing system.

As a former motorcyclist with dozens of stories involving elderly drivers and injured or killed acquaintances (one of the many reasons I must use the word former), I can attest to the dangers that arise when poor vision and slow reaction times combine with a two-ton mass of rolling steel. Sure, motorcyclists can adjust their riding style to compensate in many circumstances, but if you're riding down a city street and a vehicle turns left 10 feet in front of you (a situation I encountered far too often and one that injured a good friend of mine with 20 years of riding experience) there aren't many options left. Not even the most skilled motorcyclist can successfully play "dodge the Dodge" 100 percent of the time.

And if you find my motorcycle stories troubling, think about the five-year-old in a Los Angeles bank last year who was killed when an Oldsmobile, piloted by an elderly man, crashed through the bank wall and crushed him. The reason? Confusion relating to the gas and brake pedal. I wish this were an isolated incident, but statistics indicate that it is not.

I want to reiterate that elderly drivers have a right to drive just like anyone else. But to ignore the factors that make them a greater potential danger behind the wheel is both unwise and deadly. I don't want to assume that they can't drive; quite the opposite, in fact. I want them to repeatedly prove, on an annual basis after age 70, how capable and vibrant (and safe!) they still are.

If people start taking thorough driving tests annually after age 70, and continue to pass with flying colors well into their 90s, great! I can look forward to another 20 years of complete independence for my parents...and another 60 years of driving fun for myself!

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