Treating senior drivers as if they were still in their 40s and 50s — even when they’re well into their 70s and 80s — arguably makes about as much sense as treating teenage drivers as if they were in their 30s or 40s.
Both age groups require closer monitoring for their own safety as well as the safety of other drivers — but we currently don’t do nearly as much to protect the public from the consequences of “senior driving” as we do to limit the potential damage caused by inexperienced teens.
And yet, drivers over the age of 65 are the most likely to be involved in an accident after drivers aged 16-20, according to insurance industry data. The reasons may be different (youthful exuberance and inexperience vs. declining reflexes/vision/focus in older drivers) but the end results are often the same.
It’s a fact of life that as we age, the more likely we are to suffer from vision problems (especially diminished peripheral and “night” vision), increased reaction times, stiff limbs (making it harder to turn the wheel quickly, for example) and a host of major and minor medical problems that can affect our ability to drive safely. It’s also a fact that we’re living longer than previous generations — and that in the coming years, there will be unprecedented numbers of drivers in their 70s, 80s and even 90s on the road.
No one is demanding that older drivers surrender their licenses — or that being older necessarily means “unsafe.” However, given the medical realities about aging — and the very real problem of growing numbers of older drivers doing things like driving a Buick through a plate glass window into a shopping mall or not noticing a small child in the road — more effective screening of older drivers after a certain age seems a not-unreasonable thing to do.
For example, who could argue with more frequent vision tests after, say, the age of 70? Once every five years (or more) is just not adequate — and doesn’t take into account the major changes that can often take place in an older person’s eyes over that period of time.
Testing of peripheral and “night” vision should be part of the screening as well (and for drivers of all ages).
Another small reform that could do a great deal of good would be to decrease the interval between driver’s licenses renewal for drivers over the age of 70 to no less than once every 2-3 years. In some states, the time between renewal can be as much as once every 8-10 years. This is fine for younger drivers; in most cases, there is no appreciable physical decline that could affect one’s ability to drive between, for example, the ages of 35 and 45 (or 45 and 55). But it’s beyond debate (if the debate is to be rational and fact-based, at any rate) that major physical and mental decline can and often does occur after the age of 70. And the changes can be sudden, too.
As with vision screening, more frequent driver’s license renewals after the age of 70 or so could identify drivers who’ve become senescent and should leave the driving to others. And “automatic renewals” (which are common practice in several states) should be done away with entirely. At renewal time, a driver should be required to pass at least a minimal road test of proficiency behind the wheel — as opposed to signing a piece of paper and sending the DMV the $25 renewal fee.
As a final precautionary step, any driver (of any age — not just seniors) involved in an at-fault accident would be required to come in for a vision screening, written test of knowledge and a road test — to assure they know the rules of the road and can operate a vehicle with a minimal level of competence. Any driver involved in more than one at-fault accident in a five-year period should be required (at the very least) to attend a remedial driver’s education school and re-pass both the written and road test before his driving privileges are restored.
None of these proposals is onerous or unreasonable; the ones relating to more frequent “checks” after the age of 70 or so are derived from the incontestable facts about the aging process. The same logic used to defend more intensive monitoring/testing of inexperienced teen drivers applies just as much to older drivers. And seniors are no more “entitled” to drive than sixteen-year-olds. Or anyone else, for that matter.
Driving is — or ought to be — a privilege based on demonstrated competence. And of demonstrating competence more than just once. The fact that a person passed his test in 1960 doesn’t mean he’s still got what it takes today. Or will tomorrow.
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