Driving While Elderly

Posted Jan. 07, 2009, at 4:15 p.m.

There are few parent-child role reversals more fraught with potential for hurt feelings, anger, guilt and depression than when an adult son or daughter pleads with a mother or father to give up driving.

For the elderly parent, the end of driving means a dramatic curtailment in the freedom of mobility. And it also can be seen as a grim milestone in the progression toward a more dependent life phase. The son or daughter is probably motivated by a sense of responsibility for the parent’s safety and the safety of others on the road. But he or she also knows that such a decision signals the start of a very different relationship with the parent, one in which the child is circumscribing the autonomy of the parent.

It’s no wonder that many people feel the government should step in and make rules that cover such difficult situations, if only to eliminate those awkward confrontations.

Presently, more than 110,000 Maine drivers are 70 and older. By 2030, one of every four drivers will be 65 and older.

Based purely on subjective observations, elderly drivers seem to be more cautious than, say, that 17-year-old boy behind the wheel of a pickup with jacked-up suspension, growling exhaust system and a subwoofer designed to rattle Aunt Mabel’s teacup collection every time it passes through town. A BDN letter to the editor made this point persuasively by quoting news stories from the same issue of the newspaper in which the story about elderly drivers appeared; in five serious crashes referenced, the average age of the drivers was less than 30.

But when the elderly driver is so cautious as to drive 20 mph below the posted speed limit, he or she can inadvertently create hazards for other drivers.

And the most dangerous characteristic associated with many elderly drivers is that they are unaware that their hearing, eyesight, reaction time and physical mobility have diminished.

Some reasonable steps have been taken in Maine to protect everyone on the road from drivers who are less than able to handle the rigors of operating a vehicle on increasingly busy and often slippery roads. The Legislature shortened the license renewal period from six years to four years for those 62 and older, and required a vision test with each renewal for those older drivers. Additionally, doctors and law enforcement officers can now recommend that older drivers be tested — on paper and on the road — before their licenses are renewed.

The next step, if current requirements are not keeping dangerous drivers off the road, would be for all drivers to take a written and road test when they reach a certain age; 65 or 70 are likely ages to begin re-evaluating drivers.

Insurance companies could pre-empt government action by requiring an evaluation of older drivers. Thankfully, AARP offers driver refresher classes, often taught by older volunteers. Many seniors complete the courses to earn discounts on insurance.

No one wants to see our elderly friends and family reach the end of the open road. But safety for all must drive any decision on this emotionally challenging issue.

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