Elderly driver scrutiny

Posted June 28, 2009, at 6:59 p.m.

Those who have argued for more scrutiny of elderly drivers now have, sadly, a face to put to their cause. Earlier this month, in Stoughton, Mass., a 4-year-old girl was struck while in a crosswalk by a car driven by an 88-year-old woman. The girl, Diya Patel, died the next day. The woman’s drivers license has been revoked and she faces a vehicular homicide charge. State lawmakers are clamoring for changes that would require testing of elderly drivers.

It’s a difficult issue, but one policymakers must address. If cases like the Patel tragedy do not compel action, the fact that the first of 76 million baby boomers are now entering their mid-60s makes the case.

A bill filed in the Massachusetts Legislature by Sen. Brian A. Joyce, which failed to gain traction in past sessions, is now getting the support of Gov. Deval Patrick and others. The law would require drivers to take road and vision tests once they turn 85.

Testing at 85 is a very mild and reasonable first step. If an 85-year-old first received a driver’s license at 16, then his or her skills on the road have not been tested since Franklin Roosevelt was president. Testing at 75 might be more prudent.

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As those who have struggled with intervening between an elderly parent and his or her car know, powerful forces come into play when vehicular mobility is curtailed. Our society, for better or worse, is car dependent. Rural areas like Maine do not have enough public transportation to take the place of car ownership. Losing the ability to drive is painful, since it inevitably means a loss of freedom. It also signals entering an end-of-life phase; many seniors fear the end of mobility and autonomy, and the reliance on family, friends and services provided by others that follows.

Some senior advocacy groups will mobilize to resist these changes.

But as our parents frequently reminded us when we were teens, driving is a privilege, not a right. The state endorses this concept when it seizes drivers licenses on suspicion of operating under the influence.

If vision and road tests are given beginning at 75, 80 or even 85, it is likely that most seniors will pass, or pass with restrictions. Some drivers may be banned from driving after dark. Others may be required to drive within a certain distance of home.

The inevitable counter argument is that young drivers cause many bad crashes. This is true, and the state has taken steps to reduce these by attaching conditions, such as driving without friends in the car for the first 90 days, to teen licenses. Cell phones and other electronic devices probably cause crashes; at some point their use will be banned in cars in Maine, as they have been banned in other states.

Unlike regulatory efforts like requiring that motorcyclists wear helmets, keeping elderly drivers who are no longer proficient behind the wheel off the road helps them and others.

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