Elder Drivers, Driving Privileges and Safer Roads — Do we need regulation?
Driving a motor vehicle is a privilege and not a right. Driving a vehicle in Florida is legally the operation of a “dangerous instrumentality”. Why? Motor vehicles injure and kill people every day. It is that simple. That is why we have laws requiring drivers to pass a driving test, be licensed by the state and carry insurance.
I have some time before I am one of society’s senior citizens, but as I see those around me changing with age, I understand that in some respects our responsibilities increase as we get older. As we age, our reaction time changes and our vision and driving skills deteriorate.
Florida has an exceptionally large population of senior citizens. Nationwide, millions of senior drivers travel the roadways.
- How do we deal with the combination of a “dangerous instrumentality” being driven by seniors in our society?
- Do we establish an age at which you can no longer drive?
- Do we require retesting of drivers at certain ages? If so, what retesting is necessary?
- At what age has a driver reached the time for retesting?
- Do family members share some responsibility for monitoring their senior family members’ ability to operate a motor vehicle?
These are difficult questions with which to wrestle and there is likely to be different answers for different people. How should this be managed?
I represent the parents of a teenage girl killed in the prime of her life by a 99-year old man operating an RV negligently, down a dark road with no headlights or at best intermittingly functioning headlights. Several of this gentlemen’s children had taken away his keys after deciding that his ability to drive was impaired. They anonymously turned him into the State. Yet he passed a Michigan State driving test and was issued a renewed Michigan driver’s license just before this crash. This enabled him to operate a larger than normal vehicle (40 foot RV bus weighing 42,000 pounds), while showing terrible, tragic judgment and take the life of two teenage girls just beginning their lives.
The representation of Britney Poindexter’s parents brought me intimately close to what it is like for a parent to lose their cherished daughter and to be denied what every parent works toward – watching her blossom into a brilliant, beautiful young woman. The devastation caused by the poor judgment of a 99-year-old given permission to drive a “dangerous instrumentality” has given me a far too personal and painful view into the desolation and destruction suffered by two loving parents.
What can be done to be sure those driving on our roads are competent and capable of handling a two-ton piece of machinery often moving at 70 miles per hour?
Statistics tell us that drivers 70 years and older represent the group with the highest crash rates per mile travelled. Although deaths of older drivers have come down since the ‘90’s, nearly 5000 drivers aged 70 or more died in 2016 from vehicle accidents. Yet, older drivers have fewer accidents overall than do 16 to 25 year old drivers.
Some states require older drivers to renew driver licenses in person to help identify those who should not be driving. But will simply showing up in person be the best solution?
Understandably, many senior drivers view retesting as age discrimination and they are probably correct strictly speaking. If the retesting was done every 2 or 4 years and designed and administered fairly, would that be acceptable? After all, driving is a privilege and not a right.
The testing would take time but what would “passing” look like? If you passed the driving test, do you have to take a dreaded parallel parking test? Would a written test with a poor score, but a practical driving test with a good score get your license revoked or suspended? After driving for 50 years with a good record and few or no accidents, would older Floridians face having to walk to work? Senior citizens who must give up driving privileges give up their independence. That is understandably frightening.
AAA presents practical issues to be considered:
- Fifty percent of the middle-aged population and 80 percent of people in their 70s suffer from arthritis, crippling inflammation of the joints, which makes turning and twisting painful.
- Weaker muscles, reduced flexibility and limited range of motion restrict senior drivers’ ability to grip and turn the steering wheel, press the accelerator or brake, or reach to open doors and windows.
- Over 75 percent of drivers age 65 or older report using one or more medications, but less than one-third acknowledged awareness of the potential impact of the medications on driving performance.
- Per mile traveled, fatal crash rates increase beginning at age 75 and rise sharply after age 80. This is mainly due to increased risk of injury and medical complications, rather than an increased tendency to get into crashes.
- Since older drivers are more fragile, their fatality rates are 17 times higher than those of 25 to 64-year-olds.
- In 2009, 33 million licensed drivers were over age 65 – a 20 percent increase from 1999. By the year 2030, 70 million Americans in the U.S. will be over age 65. 85 to 90 percent of them will be licensed to drive.
- In 2014, nearly 5,709 senior drivers were killed and 221,000 were injured in traffic crashes.
- In 2009, over 58 percent of deaths in crashes involving drivers over age 65 were older drivers themselves and 12 percent were their passengers. Twenty-eight percent of these deaths were occupants of other vehicles, bicyclists and pedestrians.
Should we look at how to handle older drivers? I think we should. If the system can be structured in a fair, straight forward way that does not unduly deny the privilege of driving, we should. If it saves lives, we most definitely should.
In the case of my young client, better regulation would have prevented her tragic death and the life long suffering of her parents.