DC Puts Elderly, Unsafe Drivers Back on Road

District of Columbia mayor Adrian Fenty has rescinded a rule requiring drivers over 75 to pass a written and road test in order to renew their licenses, leaving Illinois and New Hampshire as the only jurisdictions requiring special testing for older drivers. That’s a shame.

My instinct, based on a few highly-publicized cases of old codgers getting disoriented and running over crowds of pedestrians, is that all states should require annual medical examinations and driving tests for the elderly. And all of us have gotten frustrated when getting stuck behind a little old lady afraid to drive more than 35 mph on the highway.

Sometimes, our anecdotal experiences are misleading. This does not appear to be such a case. There is mounting evidence that older drivers, in the aggregate, are unsafe.

Fatality rates for drivers begin to climb after age 65, according to a recent study by Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, based on data from 1999-2004. From ages 75 to 84, the rate of about three deaths per 100 million miles driven is equal to the death rate of teenage drivers. For drivers 85 and older, the fatality rate skyrockets to nearly four times higher than that for teens.

The numbers are particularly daunting at a time when the U.S. Census Bureau projects there will be 9.6 million people 85 and older by 2030, up 73% from today. Road safety analysts predict that by 2030, when all baby boomers are at least 65, they will be responsible for 25% of all fatal crashes. In 2005, 11% of fatal crashes involved drivers that old.

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The only measure scientifically proven to lower the rate of fatal crashes involving elderly drivers is forcing the seniors to appear at motor vehicle departments in person to renew their licenses, says the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), citing a 1995 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

[…]

Normal aging causes medical problems that affect driving. Reflexes, flexibility, visual acuity, memory and the ability to focus all decline with age. Medicines that treat various ailments also make it more difficult to focus and make snap decisions.

Elderly drivers are less likely than other drivers to be in crashes involving high speeds or alcohol, but they are more likely to crash at intersections where they miss a stop sign or turn left in front of oncoming traffic.

“Where single-vehicle rollovers can be described as a young person’s crash, side impact appears to be an old person’s crash,” National Highway Traffic Safety Administration researchers Rory Austin and Barbara Faigin wrote in a 2003 study of crash occupants published in the Journal of Safety Research.

Many states have instituted graduated licenses and various other measures to introduce teenagers to the responsibilities of driving gradually, often limiting their ability to drive at night or carry young passengers. We do this across the board, even though many teens are responsible, because the data leads us in that direction. Similarly, we need to screen elderly people — and, surely, 75 is well past the point where the statistical evidence shows a drop-off in driving skill — to ensure that they are not a danger to themselves and others.

We live in a car-centric society and taking away a person’s ability to drive is life altering, robbing them of their independence. That’s not a step we should take lightly. It is hardly unreasonable, though, to require that those over a certain age appear at the DMV once a year for screening, including a road test. The rest of us can subsidize the added expense. Pretending, though, that age doesn’t matter is something we can not afford.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Mark says:

    I was surprised to read only two states require road tests for older drivers (IL and NH).

    Behold the power of the AARP…

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    As the age of legislators rises, I expect that it will become increasingly difficult to enact legislation of this sort however prudent it might be.

  3. M1EK says:

    I grew up in South Florida, where you could move there from New York in your 70s, and not actually have to take an eye test again for 18 years (at one point). Talk about learning how to drive in a challenging environment.

    This brings us back, though, to the excessive subsidization of driving (and concomittant practical destruction of alternatives). Judges are loath to take away somebody’s car keys even when they are a clear menace because our regime of public spending has been 150% car, -50% everything else.

  4. Anderson says:

    Interesting. My (quite senile) dad lost his keys, which proved convenient as an excuse why he shouldn’t drive, given the consensus of his family & friends. But if not for that, he would still have been able to drive, and get himself or someone else killed.

    The annual exam is burdensome — look how annoying it is to get down to the DMV every 3 years or whatever to renew one’s license — but it may be the lesser evil.

  5. jeff b says:

    It’s burdensome that cars are required for living. It’s a shame that most American cities are completely useless to people without cars. Our elderly and any other people who can’t drive or choose to not drive should be able to find a place to live where walking or bicycling is the norm. But there exists almost no such place in our country.

  6. James Joyner says:

    Our elderly and any other people who can’t drive or choose to not drive should be able to find a place to live where walking or bicycling is the norm. But there exists almost no such place in our country.

    NYC (Manhattan), DC, Boston, Chicago, and other major metropolitan areas are very pedestrian friendly and car-unfriendly. Many small towns are as well.

    The problem is that many of us choose to live in the suburbs where nice, new homes are relatively affordable. Almost by definition, suburbs involve sprawl.

  7. M1EK says:

    James,

    That’s a very naive oversimplification of tax policy and regulation over the last 60 years. The vast, overwhelming majority of the country required suburban sprawl by zoning code and outlawed any new construction of urban neighborhoods. Only in the last few years have a few areas began to turn back the clock on that ill-advised move.

    People didn’t “choose” the suburbs. The suburbs (and suburban-style development in “the cities”) were the only choice allowed.