At first glance, the statistics appear to be devastating. According to The Wall Street Journal, quoting insurance industry statistics and the federal government:
“…older drivers, the fastest-growing demographic on the road and increasingly among the most dangerous…Motorists 85 and older now surpass 16-year-olds in frequency of fatalities per mile driven, and nearly match teenagers in rates of insurance claims for property damage…”
- - The Wall Street Journal, 25 March 2006 [subscription required]
But then, there is this:
“A 2004 Insurance Institute for Highway Safety study compared fatal crashes nationally by age group adjusted for the number of miles traveled. In that study, drivers across the country, ages 65 to 74, were in fatal crashes two times for every 100 million miles driven, slightly more often than the 1.6 involving drivers ages 35 to 64 and the same as those 25 to 34 but still far less than teens and 20 to 24 year olds.
- - The Journal-Gazette, 26 February 2006
Obviously, the statistics in the two stories compare apples and oranges. And that is a crucial point, rarely made clear in the national campaign that is building steam to restrict elder driving. There is a big difference between the capabilities of the young-old and old-old.
Additionally, recent reports tend to offer fender benders at any age past 65 as proof that elders are incompetent drivers, although younger drivers are not so accused for the same "crime."
The backlash against older drivers is hitting close to home these days as I prepare to move to Portland, Maine, and will be buying a car within the next few weeks. I am acutely aware that the day wll come, sometime in the future, when declining faculties will make it necessary for me to turn in my keys, but it is difficult for anyone to know when that time arrives.
As the number of elders increases dramatically in the next few years, there are questions all elders, and local governments and communities, need to consider: Should a different kind of testing be required for elder drivers? If so, at what frequency? Should there be a standard cutoff age for driving in later years as we have for teenage beginning drivers? Are there medical conditions that should automatically require revocation of driving privileges? Should there be an age at which license renewal by mail is no longer allowed?
Also critical is what alternative transportation can or will communities provide when elders can no longer drive but are capable of living independently? According to the Beverly Foundation, which promotes alternative transportation for elders,
“…about two-thirds of seniors live in low density suburbs or rural areas - both offer fewer transportation alternatives.”
Another concern is that people age at dramatically different rates. Some 60-year-olds have declined enough that driving is hazardous. Others, at 80, are still safe drivers. But bureaucracies are not designed for determining such subtleties. We allow drivers licenses to all 16-year-olds who pass the road test whether they are emotionally mature enough to drive safely or not because it is convenient. So any age restrictions we may enact are bound to cut off the freedom of movement to many elders who should not be denied a license.
The reverse of this issue is brought home in the Wall Street Journal piece which focuses primarily on attorneys who help elders regain licenses after they have been deemed unfit to drive:
“Charles Navarro was 100 years old when he smacked into the back of another car while tooling down Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles in his cherry-red Cadillac Sedan de Ville. California decided that his driving days were over…
“Mr. Navarro's wife saw [attorney] Mr. Kendall's newspaper ad and telephoned him.
“Mr. Kendall showed his client a training video he made with tips and pep talks about keeping a positive attitude. He sent him to driving school and guided him through written and road tests. Mr. Navarro regained his license, only to lose it a second time after another fender bender on busy Wilshire. With Mr. Kendall's help, he recouped his license again in 2005.”
As much as I am inclined to oppose an arbitrary cutoff age for driving, allowing a 100-year-old a license does seem to be a case of bureaucratic madness although the story’s end is both happy and ambiguous:
“Last September, Mr. Navarro drove his wife to dinner at the Biltmore Hotel in Santa Barbara. One week later, he died at home in his sleep at 101. His license wasn't set to expire until 2009.” [emphasis added]
No one wants to give up freedom of movement and most elders do not live in communities where such simple necessities as shopping for food or seeing the doctor are possible without a car. Nevertheless, the safety of everyone is at stake.
As an aging population makes the driving issue for elders more urgent, it is important for local governments and communities to find a balance between safety for the general population and fairness to capable elders. It will not be easy.