Drivers age 65 and older have been increasingly maligned for poor driving. A couple of weeks ago, columnist Ellen Goodman ticked off recent auto accidents involving elders in an essay about dependence:
“...here in Massachusetts we've had five serious car accidents involving elders in the past month. An 86-year-old struck an elderly man in a crosswalk. A 93-year-old drove through the window of a Wal-Mart, injuring six people. An 89-year-old killed a 4-year-old.”
Sounds awful, doesn't it? Those old drivers are a menace and now Massachusetts is considering regular testing of all drivers 85 and older.
That's not a bad idea, if you ignore the implied ageism which makes it sound like elders are the only people who cause auto accidents. Here are the facts according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety:
- In 2007, 41,059 people died in fatal auto crashes in the U.S.
- In 2007, 5,932 people 65 and older were involved in fatal crashes
- In 2007, 11,890 people up to age 25 were involved in fatal crashes
However, the number of fatal crashes per 100,000 people increases dramatically beginning at age 70-74, as this graph shows, although it does not reach the number of teenage fatal crashes:
I have no data, but my general impression is that news stories about auto accidents involving elder drivers has jumped dramatically in the past few years while there is hardly any mention of teen and young adult accidents. This is important when considering measures, such as regular testing, to help curb auto accidents. According to the same Insurance Institute for Highway Safety noted above, as quoted in the Washington Post:
“Teenagers are four times as likely as older drivers to be involved in a crash and three times as likely to die in one...”
Young drivers involved in crashes are more likely to be impaired by alcohol too. According to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration [pdf]:
“Of all adult drivers, older drivers involves in fatal crashes had the lowest proportion of total drivers with blood alcohol concentration of .08 grams per deciliter or higher.” (.08g/dL is the level at which a person is considered alcohol-impaired.)
None of these facts absolves anyone of bad driving behavior and what statistics clearly show is that the youngest and oldest drivers are the most dangerous to themselves and everyone else.
In the United States, the automobile is a symbol of our individual freedom. Let no man put asunder our birthright to jump in the car and take off for parts unknown. Or, just to the mall. It was the post-World War II economic boom that put a car in every garage. The concurrent growth of suburbia - with no sidewalks, no corner groceries, no restaurants or movies within walking distance – made it a necessity.
So when the times comes in late life to give up the car keys, we lose two kinds of independence – real and symbolic. It is a devastating blow and for many, a hardship, but a decision that must be taken by elders or forced upon us when we become incapable of safe driving.
The catch, however, is that we age at dramatically different rates. Some 60-year-olds should not be driving. Some 90-year-olds are still capable. So there can be no arbitrary age at which driving is cut off.
Regular testing is a good idea. But to single out elders, as a Massachusetts state senator's bill does, is not only ageist, statistics show it doesn't even make sense.
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Florence J. Anrud: Edelweiss.