Too Old to Drive?

car-driver-996590-mObtaining a driver’s license is a rite of passage for most American teenagers – with this, comes the saying that one can be “too young to drive.” Accidents and fatalities caused by elderly drivers within the past year have shed light onto whether we should set a maximum age restriction similar to how we impose a minimum for a driver’s permit or license. Take, for instance, the recent death of three people after 79-year-old Doreen Landstra reversed her SUV into seven pedestrians leaving a church service. The remaining four sustained serious injuries and were admitted to a local hospital. Witnesses report Landstra may not have realized the vehicle was shifted in reverse and instead, thought it was in drive, thereby striking pedestrians before ending up partially submerged in a nearby canal. A simple slip of the mind will have the average driver forgetting to change gears for reversing or accelerating; however, this is becoming increasingly frequent amongst drivers over the age of 75 and unfortunately, has resulted in one too many deaths. Such occurrences beg the question: is it possible to be too old to drive?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on motor vehicle safety, there was a 25 percent increase in licensed older drivers since 1999; it is expected this trend will grow exponentially with the incoming wave of baby boomers. Moreover, adults over 80 years old are five times more likely than the middle-aged to be involved in fatal crashes per mile driven. Coupled with this year’s devastating news on deaths caused by older people behind the wheel, these facts sparked the debate on retesting the elderly for proper assessment of their driving skills. The objective is to improve public safety on the road – this responsibility primarily falls into the hands of the government and physicians. What once was overlooked for decades has quickly spiraled into a pressing issue worth addressing on a legislative and medical level. That is, since nearly ninety percent of our population is licensed, it is crucial the law requires evaluation of driving skills for a specific age bracket to ultimately reduce and prevent car-related deaths.

A study conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reported a substantial decrease, approximately 42 percent, in fatalities amongst senior drivers from 1997 to 2012. Researchers correlate this with greater accessibility to reliable yet affordable vehicles readily equipped with features designed for optimum comfort and safety such as adjustable seats and low-glare mirrors. Opposition to age-based driving restrictions relies heavily on confidence that crash rates will continue to drop as time progresses. While such statistics hold true in general across all age groups, automatically assuming the elderly are safer drivers than younger ones does not offer a fair comparison between the two demographics. Senior citizens often limit themselves to nearby conveniences, such as the grocery store, and therefore, drive less in terms of distance and speed than teenagers, explaining why there are fewer car-related fatalities involving the elderly. In truth, older drivers still rank second to teenagers for causing accidents – giving reason to the need for, at the very least, periodic physical evaluation once drivers reach a certain age to serve as a safety precaution.

An example of legislative action for checking if senior drivers are fit for the road was enacted by the Ontario Ministry of Transportation in Canada. Seniors over the age of eighty are to complete a license renewal program every two years – consisting of cognitive exercises and a vision test in addition to submission of their driving record. Should officials deem the person not capable of driving due to impairment or a history of accidents, their license will then be revoked. As of today, the United States does not have a nationwide law requiring the assessment of senior drivers; rather, minor regulations and optional refresher courses are available to those wanting to brush up on road safety. This is not merely enough to prepare us for our aging population, which is expected to reach its peak within several decades.

The recent decline in traffic fatalities amongst the elderly cannot compensate for the drastic increase of senior citizens in years to come and will no longer be valid once the surge in baby boomer drivers takes place. The U.S. Census Bureau states, “Americans age 70 and older represented 9 percent of our population” in 2010; by 2050, this number will rise to as high as 16 percent. More specifically, there will be a sharp growth in senior drivers during this time frame, escalating from 29 million drivers to a whopping 53 million – an eighty percent increase. The fact that there will be an alarming number of elderly drivers raises concern for public safety, as it is proven our motor and cognitive abilities deteriorate with age.

Avoiding ageism is consistently the leading reason for the dismissal of age-based licensing restrictions. This has not stopped politicians with their efforts to improve safety on the roads. Senator McWaters proposed Virginia lower the required age for drivers to renew their licenses, which would expire every five years as opposed to the currently imposed eight, from 80 to 75 years old. The bill ultimately failed and illustrates the uncertainty most have towards the idea of potentially stripping the elderly of their freedom with these laws. The Christian Science Monitor published a report summarizing the opinions of senior citizens on recent driving restriction efforts, arguing age is not the strongest measure of driving ability and such mandatory tests border on the brink of discrimination against seniors.

Contrary to belief, groundbreaking research suggests cognitive decline occurs in our early twenties. Researchers at Simon Fraser University recorded a fifteen percent drop in cognitive speed every fifteen years once a person reaches 24 years old. With that said, a person nearing their eighties will surely exhibit, to some extent, a change in mental processing and possibly physical deterioration. Common impairments amongst the elderly are reduced vision and strength as well as slower reaction times, all of which are not favorable for safe driving. It is with this reason as to why specifically targeting senior citizens is necessary. Undoubtedly, senior citizens do not have motor and cognitive skills as sharp as teenagers or the middle-aged; the important question is how we can effectively assess the driving abilities of the elderly, especially since we all age at different rates. The answer lies in the involvement of physicians.

In other countries, the public normally links cognitive tests with sanity checks, thus, building negative association with age-based driving restrictions requiring clinical assessments. Current evaluations involve a number of exercises formulated to determine the driving capacity of the elderly. The issue and perhaps the reason for resistance to age-based testing are the questions themselves and whether they are accurate or sufficient for screening decline in driving skills. Kelly Egan reflects on his experience with observing his mother take a cognition test; what was asked of his mother, while simple in nature, was nonsensical and not in the slightest a decent prediction of driving skills. Recognizing what a pen looks like or counting backwards to one hundred by subtracting seven are not effective evaluations for determining whether one is fit to drive – it is more so a question of mental soundness rather than capabilities. Helping senior citizens realize their limitations requires consultation on a personal level with their doctors and must not rely on results obtained from a generalized cognitive test. Knowledge on an individual’s physical and mental capacity is the key factor to properly assessing the elderly.

The University Of Colorado School Of Medicine surveyed senior citizens for their preference on who to discuss driving retirement with. Scientists concluded from the poll that the elderly were less likely to accept advice from family members and surprisingly more inclined to listen to a physician, preferably a family doctor who has knowledge on the patient’s history. Due to the fact majority of the elderly population have annual doctor appointments for health screenings, it would be convenient for our government to look into incorporating driving assessment with these visits once senior citizens reach a certain age. If, for some reason, the physician feels the patient is not physically or cognitively fit to drive safely, then legal action of revoking their license could be in order or simple voluntary driving retirement would suffice. The approach of anticipatory guidance will reduce the tendency for the elderly to immediately oppose the thought of not being able to drive, as it is a sensitive subject that ought to be examined in a respectable manner.

In short, the increase in car-related fatalities caused by senior citizens and the expected surge in baby boomer drivers raises demand for age-based assessment and restriction. Laws requiring regular renewal of licenses for those over the age of 70 to 80 in addition to a physician’s diagnosis on whether the patient is fit to drive will ultimately improve public safety on the roads. In the case of the tragedy following Landstra reversing her SUV into pedestrians, the court suspended Landstra’s license for one year and charged a $1,000 fine. The possible return of an unsafe driver haunts the families and friends of the victims in the accident. We should not have to live with such agony and worry – regulation of who is physically and mentally able to safely drive will hopefully reduce and prevent future fatalities and accidents. More importantly, it is best we do so in a way where the elderly do not feel as if their independence and freedom is being taken from them, which is why it is a crucial step to involve doctors who can offer proper guidance to enable a comfortable discussion of driving retirement.

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