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Published: Friday, 11/4/2005

Driving while elderly

THE public safety issue of elderly drivers couldn't be more emotionally charged. But that shouldn't make it a topic studiously avoided by policymakers fearful of a senior citizen backlash.

Blade columnist Roberta de Boer described in a recent column how excruciatingly difficult it was for one adult son to get his aging father to stop driving for his own safety and that of others.

The 80-year-old parent, who freely admitted he depends on his wife's eyesight and block-by-block instructions while driving, apparently has no intention of turning in his driver's license. Indeed, the loss of independence is a frightening prospect for us all as we age.

It is not a unique dilemma. Families confront it regularly with elderly relatives whose declining physical or mental condition makes them an accident waiting to happen behind the wheel. And with seniors the fastest growing segment of the driving population, the problem of balancing public safety with the rights and dignity of older drivers can only get worse until the sensitive subject is squarely confronted.

It is not enough to throw up the specter of age discrimination or complain about the shaky driving records of teenagers in hopes that the issue of elderly drivers as a safety hazard will just go away. It won't.

Certainly every individual is different, and it's true that many drivers 75 and older are much safer on the road than drivers half their age. But while age alone doesn't determine one's ability to operate a vehicle, the evidence, writes David Rosenfield in the Elder Law Journal, suggests that "certain characteristics associated with aging impair driving performance."

Denying the existence of those characteristics - failing vision, decreased reflexes, and diminished decision-making abilities - won't make them disappear.

The facts speak for themselves. With more seniors driving more these days than ever before, they have moved past teenagers as an age group in compiling the highest number of traffic accidents per mile.

Moreover, noted Mr. Rosenfield, drivers 75 and older have a 37 percent higher crash rate than younger drivers.

Older drivers, who tend to be more physically fragile than their younger counterparts, are also more likely to suffer injuries in crashes. With the exception of teenagers, senior drivers beat every age group in having the highest probability of death resulting from auto-related accidents.

The point is not to summarily demand the car keys of all drivers past a certain age but to better determine the ability of an increasingly aging population to drive safely. The challenges of accomplishing that goal are considerable but not insurmountable.

Suggestions range from more stringent and uniform state license renewal requirements once a person reaches a certain age, to legislation requiring insurance companies to offer discounts to elderly drivers who complete driver safety courses.

Some experts have also raised the prospect of advanced technical systems in cars tailored to address the unique problems experienced by senior drivers. But a growing elderly population means a solution must be found that will serve the safety needs of both senior citizens and the communities where they live and drive.

The number of senior drivers in the country, now estimated at about 19 million, is expected to jump to more than 30 million by 2020. No matter how conflicted states are about senior drivers, and about demanding additional assessments of their driving abilities, doing nothing is not an option anyone can live with.



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