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Elder Driver Testing

category_bug_ageism.gif 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:

“ 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.


Presumably all those youngsters involved in auto accidents were driving legally, meaning that they had previously passed a driver's test. I am not sure passing a driver's test is going to mean all that much.

Also, older women should probably be exempt from such testing as, according to your graph, their incidence of accidents appears to decrease after age 85! At no point in the average man's driving career is his accident rate as low as that of an over-85 woman! Since women make up a larger proportion of the over-85 crowd, shouldn't that make the accident rate tend to level off after 85?

While not convinced that driver's tests prevent accidents, let's have 'em for all males every 10 years. And if that's sexist, then let everybody do 'em.

There's a full page ad on the back of the recent Time about New Jersey raising the driving age to 17 and seeing "a dramatic decrease in teen driving deaths"
The real problem is lack of public transportation in rural areas like ours. I'd gladly dispense with owning a car but it's not possible where I live.

Mom's major beef about being 86 is her loss of freedom to go when and where she chooses. Mom is afraid to take the bus. I'm her driver now, and whenever we hit the road, she says "I only pray that when you are my age, someone has thought of a way for you to get around." We need some kind of free transport for seniors-something that will pick us up and take us to where we want to go. Does that exist anywhere? I don't mind driving mom. We're good buddies. But I do worry about the future, so will make sure we live a short walk from food, library and bus.

With reference to doctafill's post, here in St Augustine, FL we have exactly that service. The Council on Aging will pick up seniors (over 65) at their home and take them where they need to go. We also have the Sunshine Bus Company which picks up seniors and others on its regular route and takes them all over town. I would think that area aging agencies elsewhere would provide the same service.

Doctafil--Yes, that program exists in some places. I suggest that you call your local United Way or American Red Cross. They usually know what programs are available.

All--Youngsters don't just need more driving experience, they need to mature. Having drivers start at a later age (22 comes to mind as an "ideal" age), we would cut the carnage on our roads. BTW: Unfortunately, I don't have the time to delve for a reference; but, I have read that youngsters not only take their own lives but those of others while oldsters tend to mostly take "only" their own in driving accidents.

In my opinion, 22 is too old. By then many are married, holding down jobs, having kids, but we could up it to 18. Some kids are very responsible but some are reckless. It is a lot parents who don't want that as once the kids drive, it's easier on them.

Oregon now limits how many kids can ride in a car driven by someone under 18 (not sure of the exact age). Some of our worst accidents came because of a bunch of teens going somewhere.

Out where I live, narrow country roads, the oones who are most likely to pass stupidly, are middle aged men but often the reason they take the risk is an elder who cannot drive the speed limit and builds up traffic behind them. Most who live here are sympathetic because we are 20 miles from grocery stores. To not drive means to move to town.

I think the reason they don't retest all ages for reflexes is economic. They'd have to charge more for the testing. I doubt the law could be changed without politicians, who don't want to do things that make people mad and taking more time to get your license renewed and paying more money would not be popular.

My mother lost her license because of the driver's retesting of vision. We were telling her not to drive, taking her, and she was not driving, but she wanted to keep it as she only got it after my dad died and she was 68. It was such a point of pride for her, but she had macular degeneration which she didn't want to admit was impacting her ability to drive. After her vision test, they told her she would have to get a doctor to say it was okay and the doctor said she should not drive. It was painful to her but if she had killed someone else, it would have been more so. I see nothing wrong with retesting; and in Oregon, all ages have to have vision retested every 8 years.

Wow -- just looking at that graph, I'd deny driving to young and old MEN if I sought perfect safety. But I know we can't have that.

This is a sensitive issue for me. My mother drove until she had a small stroke behind the wheel -- and killed someone in a parking lot.

Why was she driving? Because driving made her an autonomous adult. As least in her mind, having come up as a member of "the younger generation" in the 1920s, that's how she understood the world. All became decline when she could no longer drive. So a terrible thing occurred and another family suffered the loss of their mother.

This is a very difficult societal bind we've created for ourselves because we're so very dependent on the automobile.

Our car dependence is a murderous thing...not only for individuals but for the whole culture. For everyone too young, disabled, ill, or otherwise "non-driving" for any reason, life is very, very difficult--isolated, time-consuming, limited. Please, when you choose where to live, think "can I get here (or out of here) WITHOUT A CAR?"

Such places are hard to find, usually because they're surprisingly desirable. We are constantly bombarded with real estate propaganda pummeling us with the "fact" that "everyone" wants a country setting and a huge house. That's not actually true. If it were, safe, transit-friendly pedestrian-possible locations wouldn't be as scarce and/or expensive as they are. Such a location can pay you back very quickly, though, since even a paid-for car isn't free; it's estimated to cost $6,000 a year in insurance, tags, gas, repairs, etc. And not being shackled to the car keys for "independence"? Priceless!

When my grandfather was in his 70s in the 1950s, he was losing his hearing so he did two things that I always shall remember -- he resigned from his position on the Board of Directors of the local bank because he could not follow the meeting discussions well, and he sent his driver's license back to the State of West Virginia with a "thank you" note.

This is a serious set-up we have bought into in becoming so automobile dependent and I think the rub is that it is now time to pay the piper. Our communities are built around easy auto availability and there is much revamping to be done in city planning policies and in bringing the services up to speed in aiding those who are unable to access transportation now. It sounds like Oregon is giving some thought to these issues and placing some sound and non-ageist policies in place.

I don’t know about most of the folks who frequent this blog, but if you are trying to determine when the retesting of individuals should be required based on the driving ability of “most” drivers, I would say not too long after their “FIRST” driver’s test. I am under the opinion that most individuals whom I share the road with on a daily basis apparently have low retention abilities when it comes to remembering anything contained in those driver’s manuals.

They don’t remember what the word “Speed Limit” means. They must have never understood the concept of the word “STOP” incorporated in many traffic signs I personally see during my daily driving trips. And they might as well delete that statement from the state driving manuals about pulling over and stopping for emergency vehicles. And if I may be so bold, I think all references to the word “COURTEOUS” should be removed from all state’s driver manuals so as to save ink in these bad economic times.

Not meaning to compare or categorize elder drivers to those driving under the influence (DUI), but if we are not capable of recognizing our abilities to control a motor vehicle or lack of, then we are part of the problem. At some point I will take myself off the road. If I become mentally unable to make that decision, then something needs to be put into place to ensure I don’t harm myself or more importantly….someone else. If you live alone as so many of us elders do, recognizing and addressing the issue can be difficult at best.

There are certainly excellent questions raised with regard to the consequences of aged individuals being removed from the road and how they can continue to function in their daily lives - but we as a society are obligated to protect each other as best we can. And when our age becomes a factor in our driving ability, it seems to me we are obligated to make whatever adjustments are necessary to function without the need to drive.

Giving up your car certainly limits your independence. I voluntarily gave mine up after having an accident caused by my inattention. (Fortunately, the only thing that was injured was my car and it was totaled). We all know when we can't see the street signs as well as we used to and when we are slower to react and we should voluntarily stop driving at that point. Unfortunately the car is so necessary that many people (not just seniors) keep driving when they know they are no longer competent.

We have a Van that picks you up at your door and takes you where you want to go, but it is very inconvenient. I have to be ready 30 minutes before being picked up and when I don't know the exact time I will be through I have to wait to call for the Van. I have waited as long as 3 hours to be taken home.

We also have a volunteer group that will take you to doctor appointments in your area. Often they will wait while you see the doctor. I only use them when absolutely necessary because I don't want to abuse the people who are kind enough to give up their time to help.

I think more people would give up driving if there was a reliable source of transportation.

Although there is considerable debate over issues like the age at which testing should start, how often the testing should be conducted, etc,, the Massachusetts legislature almost unanimously agrees that some form of periodic driver testing should begin at some point in a person's life. In the neighboring state of New Hampshire, drivers must take a comprehensive driving test every five years, beginning at age 75.

Currently, in MA a license renewal is good for five years, with the option of making one renewal online instead of going to the RMV. Consequently a driver can go as long as 10 years between vision tests. While this option is convenient and does save the state money, both of which I'm definitely in favor of, it does allow some drivers to keep their licenses longer than they should.

I'm 74 and dread the day that I lose my freedom because of my inability to drive safely. The memory of how having to turn in his license at age 84 and rely on others for transportation impacted my fiercely independent father in law is still quite vivid. Losing his independence was a blow that he never got over.

So, I'm quite sympathetic to the plight of those who must relinquish their drivers license. But, unfortunately, for some their is no alternative.

Almost daily, in my local travels, I see old people who have severe physical debilities that obviously impair their ability to safely operate a motor vehicle. Yet they get into their cars and drive. A few months ago I got a real scare when I saw a big 70s era Lincoln (built like a Sherman tank) coming diagonally across the parking lot of a shopping center and headed straight at me, and no driver behind the wheel. Well, at least that's what it looked like. Actually, it was being driven by an old woman who had to look through the steering wheel because she was unable to see over it, giving the appearance that no one was driving the car. When she stopped and got out, I saw that she had osteoporosis so bad that she was bent over so far forward that she was almost facing the ground. Only by forcing her head backward (up) was she able to see where she was slowly walking.

If people with obvious impairments are still driving, how many with less obvious impairments are doing the same? Your guess is as good as mine, but one provision proposed by a few legislators is to require doctors who conclude that a patient is incapable of operating a motor vehicle safely to notify the RMV. As long as people are provided an opportunity to dispute such an assessment, I think that this is not an unfair requirement.

The whole issue is so complex that I don't believe there's any one-size-fits-all solution. No matter the outcome, some age group (young or old) will feel that they are being treated unfairly.

I think the unbalanced news reporting of accidents involving older drivers and the more frequesnt testing of older drivers is yet another unacknowledged bias. Younger drivers "need" their cars to date, get to work, get to school, while older drivers don't need do be anywhere (and there are younger drivers and social services to take them to their doctor appointments).

That graph pretty much kills the "women are bad drivers" myth, too.

After reading the intervening comments, it occurs to me that the reason age 22 popped into my mind as the right age at which to be granted a driver's license (in my comment, above) is because that is the age at which I was granted mine. By then I had gone through high school, done 3 1/2 years of college, married, had a child, been employed - without benefit of car or driver's license. (Too, I have an aunt who quit driving about 60 years ago because she didn't feel she did it well. Would that we all had her good sense. Now in her 80s and living alone, she manages to get where she needs to go and back.)

Instead of spending so much time on the licensing issue, I agree with many of the commentors who mentioned that we need better mass transit - and - to recognize that taking a taxi is often an option.

One of my pet peeves is that when an older person has an accident, the headline trumpets his or her age. When a young or middle-aged person has one, there is no mention of their age.

Many older people do police themselves and realize things they aren't able to do well--for instance, they may drive only on roads they are familiar with, keep away from city traffic and stop driving at night.

There are very few options for rural residents. If I ever had to give up my license, heaven forbid, I'd have to sell my house and move to town. Even then there would be only inconvenient and unreliable van service. Most people in town can't live near shopping or libraries. Life would be infinitely more difficult.

Considering the issue, I sense there is not a correct answer. The one concern I hold is that driving is routine as well as habit. With that said, perhaps, there is little notice of changes in our driving because it is something we've done for a very long time.

Public transit is an answer - however, there is this consideration of bad weather, delays, and lags in schedule for non-rush hour times. This makes it challenging for everyone who wants to take advantage of a public transit option - as well as the further you live outside of a city, the longer the commute or the less (if any) public transit is available.

The savings of not owning a car are considerable and in these economic times, really are worth consideration.

In writing this up, and giving it more thought as I write, it comes down to each person, the area they live in and the alternatives available. No easy solution for this one!

My anecdotal view of bad driving does not bear out that older folks are any worse, as a "group" than anyone else.

It doesn't surprise me that more objective data bears that out.

Ronni, the day before you wrote this column, my husband, who is 84 and still a good driver, was almost sideswiped or worse by a driver who came from his blind spot two lanes to our right and crossed in front of him to exit on the left at a particularly complex section of roads near the Tampa airport. If I hadn't alerted him and he didn't have the quick reflexes to hit the brake in time we would have been a news item. Of course it would have read: "84 year old driver in accident." And the following day a much younger cut him off by shooting out of a gas station and crossing the road in front of him. Again, he was able to avoid an accident by quick thinking and action. Each time these incident occur, and they occur often, I run the headline in my mind. Of course it would be the 84 year old driver.

defensive driving. The act or practice of operating an automobile in such a way as to minimize accidents, especially by looking out for and avoiding others who are driving badly.

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