My grandfather is 88 years old. He also has Alzheimer’s. But most importantly – my grandfather is 88 years old, has Alzheimer’s, and still drives.
He gets lost on his way to places. He forgets where he’s going while driving. He hits the gas when he means to brake, and vice versa. And in his home state of Michigan, there’s no legal way to prevent him from getting behind the wheel of a car.
A Greater Risk Than Teens?
As life expectancies rise, more and more elderly drivers are on the roads. The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that fatalities resulting from auto accidents are four times more likely when a senior is involved than teens. Decreased vision, impaired hearing and coordination, and general physical decline contribute to a lower driving ability. Cognitive decline has been shown to begin as early as 45 years.
This begs the question – how can we prevent dangerous senior drivers from taking to the roads?
“I Never Had a Reason Until Now”
It is important to note that numerous seniors in good health are excellent drivers. Many seniors feel that their years of experience on the roads preclude the need for written, vision, or behind-the-wheel exams, and requiring them is age discrimination. If a driver has yet to be in an accident or commit a violation, there is technically no reason to question their abilities.
However, after killing 17-year-old Katie Bolka at an intersection, 90-year-old driver Elizabeth Grimes claimed she “never had a reason until now” to give up her keys; yet she’d previously been in an accident at the same spot where she hit Bolka. Cases like these exemplify occasions where senior drivers don’t realize the extent of their diminished capabilities and refuse to give up their keys. A Connecticut man hit a 15-year old pedestrian and didn’t realize it until the next day’s news story on the accident due to his macular degeneration, an age-related disease.
Safe Solutions… But Are They Enough?
There are options for seniors who recognize the need to decrease their driving, such as public transportation and curbside services. Many who have noticed a slight decline in their driving abilities have applied self-imposed restrictions, such as avoiding highways. Mature driver education courses are an excellent choice for seniors whose cognitions are still quite sharp; they not only serve to refresh essential driving skills, but can also qualify drivers to receive insurance discounts.
There are also back-door solutions. In my grandpa’s case, my mom and uncle anonymously submitted a claim to the DMV requesting that he appear for written and vision exams. But drivers may pass a written test, yet completely lose their bearings once they are behind the wheel. Most states do not even require seniors to renew their license in person – Texas Sen. John Corona was quoted as saying his mother is blind, but was able to renew her unrestricted license by mail. Only Illinois and New Hampshire ask that seniors pass a behind-the-wheel exam.
Driving: Right vs. Privilege
Seniors have an absolute right to their independence and mobility. Taking my grandpa’s keys away from him will strip him of an integral part of his life, and render him partially powerless. That breaks my heart. But this is not a humanitarian issue – it’s a safety issue. Driving is not a right; it is a privilege, regardless of age. Written, vision, and behind-the-wheel exams are the only way to ensure the safety of the driver and their fellow motorists. And seniors who are safe drivers should have no issues passing these preventative measures.
As one anonymous blogger wrote for USA Today, “Driving should always be ability-based.” We require teens without experience to jump through the appropriate hoops to ensure they belong on the roads, and we withhold those privileges when they fail to meet the standards. Why should adult drivers with diminished capabilities be held to any different level of accountability?