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Senior driving a tough judgment call

by Alan Markow, published

Most of us will never forget the feeling of freedom that came with our right to drive.  It was almost a magical release from the bounds of childhood.   More than 50 years after I gained that right, it is being threatened – not by government decree, but by the potential ravages of aging.

A story in the April 23 Sacramento Bee highlights the issue of elderly people behind the wheel, when they should give up driving, and the difficulty of getting them to do so.  The biggest problem is that the person least likely to know that it’s time to stop driving is the aging individual. 

From my personal point of view, it’s almost impossible to accept any of the infirmities of aging.  I keep thinking I’m just out of shape and need a better fitness program to get my flexibility and stamina back.  It’s simply not happening.  I just finished a season of skiing, and I’m still old.

So the Sac Bee article really gave me something to think about.  Then it was reinforced with a note on my senior community’s chat line with the following message:  “My neighbor has lost his driver's license and would like to find someone to drive him daily to Rocklin where his wife is living in a care facility.“ 

According to the online magazine, “statistics show that older drivers are more likely than younger ones to be involved in multi-vehicle crashes, particularly at intersections.”  Last summer, the Wall St. Journal ran an article about driving problems among the elderly, which noted that “the number of licensed drivers over the age of 65 is likely to double by 2030.” 

The article went on to talk about typical driving impairments among seniors, but noted that “no single screening method has emerged that is comprehensive and predictive enough to flag a problem driver before an accident occurs.”

On top of everything else, we are a driving society.  Outside of a few major cities, public transit is an inadequate replacement for a car.  Typical urban sprawl has put most shopping out of walking range.

When will I know it’s time to quit driving?  Will a family member tell me, then take away the keys?  Or will I cause some terrible accident that kills or maims someone and thereby lose my right to drive (and perhaps my liberty as well)?  I hope it’s the former, or even my own good judgment that causes me to turn in my driver’s license.

California law says that any driver over 70 must be re-tested for a driver’s license if they have two or more non-fatal accidents per year – as opposed to three non-fatal accidents for younger drivers.  Older drivers are also required by California to take a written test and an eye exam every five years.  But five years is a long time, and the ability of a person to drive can drop off precipitously between, say, the ages of 75 and 80.

Vigilance seems to be the only answer, because an age cut-off makes no sense in light of many seniors’ continued skill on the road into their 80s and beyond.  I sure hope someone is watching out for me.

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