Roadkill: geezers, texters at the wheel

His father-in-law, aged 91, got a new 5-year driver’s license from the State of California, with zero proof of intact driving skills. The family was worried, but without much power. According to an op ed piece by Santa Cruz, CA writer John Moir, the community was saved from potential disaster at the hands of an age-challenged driver only when a mild heart attack prompted his physician to order him away from the wheel.

Meanwhile, a nationwide population of licensed drivers young enough to be his great-great-grandchildren are navigating our roadways with one eye on the intersection and full attention on a text message in progress. Another op ed piece not long ago, this one by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution‘s Cynthia Tucker, told of accidents caused by phoning/texting drivers that are estimated at close to a quarter of a million per year. There is a growing movement to address this truly scary problem. And it is scary: if you walk in cities much you know how often only your own wits (Can’t make eye contact? Don’t trust that driver) keep you alive. In Nebraska, for example, activist teens, largely motivated by the horrific BBC YouTube video now gone viral, are pushing for a state ban on phoning/texting while driving. A national organization, FocusDriven, was started by a group of individuals who had lost loved ones to drivers on phones; they offer support for victims and tips for advocacy. FocusDriven is patterned after MADD (Mother’s Against Drunk Driving.)

But the issue of geezer drivers gets sticky. My own father was fond of pointing out, well into his 80s, that he had never had an accident. We bit our tongues not to comment on the disasters that probably followed in his wake. But the Commonwealth of Virginia continued to renew his license and none of his four out-of-state daughters was able to convince him that his driving was not in others’ best interest. It took a family friend, who pointed out how much money could be saved on gas, upkeep and insurance coverage, to get my father to sell his car.

The primary problem with aging drivers is the ease with which they are (in California, at least) re-issued a five-year license. Not long ago, at the ripe age of 75, I renewed my own. My eyes tested just fine — although prescription distance glasses make me way safer behind the wheel, especially at night. I studied for the written test (same test as anyone gets at any age) because it is full of trick questions, often concerning factoids that have little to do with public safety.  Presumably, if one is not mentally acute one would fail the written test — but you can retake it the next day. There was no road test of any sort, so if I were becoming prone to miss road signs, clip corners or misjudge parallel parking distances nobody would know. (I hope I’m not.)

Mandatory age limits for driving, such as commercial pilots have, probably aren’t going to happen, and probably shouldn’t. Many seniors must drive their own cars for endless reasons. Time and manpower required for road tests may put them beyond what states can afford these days. But why aren’t other answers possible?

Why couldn’t AARP put its considerable muscle and money behind a volunteer training program that would set in motion volunteer-led senior driving sessions? Why couldn’t states then require completion of such sessions before licenses were renewed after a certain age? Why couldn’t some insurance agency — AAA comes to mind — get behind a state-mandated program of this sort, offering the lower rates for graduates that are commonly offered graduates of safe-driving programs? Why couldn’t safe-driving seniors be offered a small compensation for running such programs, in return for the savings in lives and ER costs?

My license expires on my 81st birthday. I’ll happily sign up for a seniors class. Meanwhile I will remain on the alert for texting juniors.

2 responses

  1. Fran is right that we need to achieve a dual goal of keeping older drivers on the road while reducing the number of accidents. Why? Because the implications of taking away transportation for anyone – not being able to get to jobs, visit family and friends, participate in volunteer activities, or reach basic necessities like the grocery store or the doctor’s office – are profound. And so are the consequences of accidents caused by unsafe drivers of any age.

    I am CEO of Posit Science and have a recommendation on how to accomplish that dual goal. We know that brain performance – the ability to react quickly to what we see – is a great predictor of crash risk. For example, a recent NHTSA study of older driver screening programs concluded that testing brain performance was the most predictive in understanding crash risk. We also know through recent studies that brain performance can be improved through specifically designed computer-based exercises, resulting in significantly safer driving.

    We partnered with the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety to launch a simple on-line risk assessment for free at http://www.drivesharpnow.com and DriveSharp, a software program that contains proven technology to help people be safer behind the wheel by training the brain to think quicker and react faster.

  2. Thanks so much for weighing in, Steven. I’ve written on this page several times about brain fitness, Posit Science (and just signed up for the newsletter) and related businesses, and I agree that brain performance can be improved. You’re also right that taking away licenses at a specific age is not an answer. I just took the online risk assessment, though, and toward the end twice got a screen with no images at all. If you’ll re-check that software I’ll try it again.

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