Driving While Old 

Should we put the brakes on elderly drivers?

I slammed on the breaks so violently that my breath was momentarily restricted by the seat belt and my car's wheels screamed in agony. I had been cut off and nearly T-boned by someone plowing through a stop sign. After my heart rate lessened and the shakes began to subside, I decided they were going to hear about it. With a certain finger locked and loaded, I pulled up beside the oblivious offender. But when my eyes met with the driver's, I hesitated. "Just let it go," my passenger pleaded. "It's an old lady. She doesn't know what she's doing."

While results may vary depending on your neighborhood, my story is not an uncommon one. Drivers unfit for operating multiple-ton motor vehicles, many of them elderly, endanger the streets for the rest of us.

In Los Angeles last month, 100-year-old Preston Carter backed his car into a group of 11 pedestrians on a sidewalk, nine of whom were school children. No one was killed, but four of the children were seriously injured. Carter was not under the influence of any substances and had no history of traffic violations. After the incident, his 78-year-old daughter promised the media that it was his last venture behind the wheel.

It's true that you don't wake up one day as a senior citizen and suddenly become a terrible driver. And I'm sure there are plenty of 80-year-olds who could out-maneuver me in an Oldsmobile. But according to smartmotorist.com, there is a correlation between older drivers and traffic accidents. The site reports that elderly people make up 9 percent of America's population but cause 14 percent of all traffic fatalities — and 17 percent of all pedestrian fatalities.

So what can we do? Petition for a ban of drivers above the age of 70? Require yearly DMV tests for motorists above a certain age? After one of my near run-ins with an elderly driver, I momentarily pondered requiring all drivers above the age of 75 to drive as many miles-per-hour as their age at all times in order to cull out the weak ones. But upon further review, that seemed harsh.

Some states have taken action. California's Department of Motor Vehicles requires that people over the age of 70 renew their driver's license in person every five years. That means at 100, Carter was deemed fit for operating a vehicle. Most of us will be lucky if we're deemed fit for operating a dinner fork at 100.

Anyone could have made the mistake Carter did (16-year-olds have a higher crash rate than any other drivers, but minimum driving age is another discussion). Overall, though, elderly driving statistics are tough to ignore and even harder to swallow, especially if there's something we can do to fix them.

Some have suggested public transit for senior citizens who possess an at-risk driving record, but in most of the country — especially in rural areas and smaller towns — it's not feasible. And to strip away someone's ability to leave the house alone would be to strip them of their independence. Is that something we can concern ourselves with if lives are at risk?

State laws must be stricter. California has the right idea, but they should bump the DMV visits up to at least every two years, and the test should include an instructor-led, in-depth driving test. As medicine continues to improve and our population continues to stretch its twilight years, we must adapt our thinking.

People's lives — and the life of my bumper — are on the line.

Michael Wassmer, an occasional contributor to the Flyer, is a Memphis communications consultant.

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