How do we handle older drivers?

September 10, 2012 

A simmering debate over what restrictions, if any, should be placed on drivers as they age was rekindled in recent days by a case involving a 100-year-old driver in Los Angeles.

While trying to back his Cadillac out of a grocery store parking lot, the 100-year-old man struck and injured 11 people, including nine children who were gathered outside their elementary school to buy after-school treats.

The driver’s own daughter was quoted as saying she had been trying for years to get her father to hand over his keys and accept the fact he lacked the ability to drive safely any more.

Her story is a common one as children watch their parents’ reflexes and response times slow behind the wheel in a fast-paced society where one of the true measures of freedom and independence remains the ability to drive.

Here in Washington state, restrictions on older drivers are minimal. The one thing that changes with age is that anyone 70 or older must renew his or her driver’s license in person, which includes taking an eye exam.

Opponents of age restrictions on drivers insist that age is not an accurate indicator of ability to drive safely. They make a point: There are, in fact, 85-year-old drivers who are safer behind the wheel than their teenage grandchild, or their middle-aged son or daughter.

But a rudimentary eye examination at the driver’s licensing office doesn’t validate someone’s ability to drive. There’s no denying that debility and decline are associated with aging.

In a perfect world, senior citizens would acknowledge when they are no longer able to drive safely and take themselves off the road before they hurt someone else or themselves.

In a perfect world, families would make the decisions, not government rules and regulations.

But we don’t live in a perfect world. At some point in the later stages of life – is it 80 or 85 or beyond? – it seems reasonable to require drivers to take written tests at the very least, and perhaps driving tests, to maintain their licenses.

Every day in this country, some 10,000 baby boomers turn 65. The debate over senior citizens and driving will only intensify over time.

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