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DWE: Driving While Elderly

Should the right to drive be stripped away?

By Rich_Maloof Aug 31, 2012 8:14PM

Photo: David McLain/Getty ImagesWhen a 100-year-old man accidentally backed his Cadillac onto a Los Angeles sidewalk on Wednesday, seriously injuring nine children and two adults outside an elementary school, a back-burner debate about the rights of older drivers was reignited.

Should the right to drive be stripped away from the elderly?

Soon there will be more geriatric drivers sharing the road than ever before. Given the aging baby boomer generation, there will be about 8 million more drivers ages 65 and older by the year 2020 than there are today. A report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) indicated four major areas potentially compromising an aging person's fitness to drive: sensory decline (visual impairment having the greatest impact); motor decline, or the mobility and flexibility of the body; cognitive decline; and dementia.

However, it's not elderly drivers causing the most accidents. Despite this week’s headline story, people tend to become more cautious behind the wheel as they mature.

"Unless there's a health issue, older drivers tend to be safer,"  a spokesperson for the NHTSA told The Daily Dose. "The assumption that older drivers have more crashes is not right. We see more amongst teenagers."

Health issues, rather than age, link elders to auto accidents, so it's important to assess whether an older person is fit to drive. The adult children of that aging baby boomer generation can help by talking to older drivers about safe driving. It's a profound loss to a person's independence — and stinging to his or her pride — to be suddenly unable or not allowed to drive, but personal rights do have to be measured against potential risk. In California, where century-old Preston Carter backed over the schoolkids, the DMV requires all drivers over 70 to pass a vision and written test each year. Thirty two more states, plus Washington D.C., have Mature Driver Laws (learn about your state here).

There really is very little legislation regulating elder drivers, but know the facts and statistics on older drivers before painting with too broad a brush. They're stereotypically guilty of driving slowly but not of doing 80 on a two-lane street in their midlife crisis sports cars. They don't tend to text or talk on cell phones while they drive or wear iPod headphones. They don't pack seven friends in the car, catch a buzz at bingo, and then drive their friends back home.

CBS interviewer asked Mr. Carter if anybody has told him he is too old to drive, and he responded, "They gave me the license!" But the remorseful Carter, who said he would never hurt kids "for nothin' on earth," has decided on his own to give up his keys. He turns 101 next Wednesday. 

Photo: David McLain/Getty Images

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