In July of 2003, an eighty-four year old man drove through a crowded farmer’s market in Santa Monica, California, killing ten people, including a seven-month old and a three-year old. He also injured around forty others. According to many news reports, the driver apparently panicked and hit the gas instead of the brake, speeding through the crowded street. This mistake is common among elderly drivers who no longer possess the necessary skills to safely operate a vehicle. Either their vision has become poor, they are no longer able to react quickly, or their cognitive abilities have begun to deteriorate. Some older drivers do not realize they are becoming unsafe on the road, while others simply do not want to give up their keys. Still others are perfectly capable of driving safely well into their eighties or even nineties. Because of the variation in driving abilities and the high incidence of fatal accidents among older drivers, states need to ensure the safety of our streets and highways by passing laws requiring motorists over the age of seventy to pass frequent road and vision tests.
Although many people agree that elderly drivers are a high-risk age group, some critics of mandatory testing call it a form of age discrimination. This statement, however, is entirely untrue. Mandatory testing and frequent license renewal are not products of age discrimination, but rather precautionary measures to ensure the safety of both the driver and all others on the road, much like the laws governing teenage drivers. Teen drivers cause more fatal accidents than any other age group; therefore, states have legislation specific to that group of drivers. Those laws, though age specific, are not criticized as discrimination, and laws geared toward senior drivers should not be considered discriminatory either.
Elderly drivers are right behind teens in the number of fatal crashes they cause, and statistics show that per licensed driver, the rate of fatal crashes rises sharply at age seventy. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in 2001, elderly drivers made up just over ten percent of the driving population, yet accounted for thirteen percent of all fatal accidents. Also, about half of fatal accidents involving older drivers occurred at intersections, and seventy-three percent involved another vehicle.
These facts show that many elderly drivers put both themselves and others at risk by driving when they are no longer able to do so safely. If frequent mandatory testing were required, unsafe elderly drivers would no longer be licensed to be on the road. It is the responsibility of each state to take measures to decrease the number of fatal accidents caused by high-risk groups, and mandatory testing is just such a measure. Many states focus heavily on teenage drivers, raising the minimum driving age or instituting graduated license systems, but statistics show that equal attention needs to be given to elderly drivers.
Some states have already instituted frequent renewals and/or mandatory vision and driving tests. In Iowa and Rhode Island, for instance, drivers age seventy and older are required to renew their licenses every two years, as opposed to the five years for all other drivers. In Illinois, drivers over seventy-five have to take a road test at each renewal. In Maine, drivers over the age of sixty-two have to pass a vision test at each renewal, and drivers over sixty-five are required to renew more often. By addressing not only the high-risk teen drivers, but also the high-risk elderly drivers, these states are providing others with an example of what steps can be taken to make our nation’s roads safer. Granted, frequent license renewals and optometry visits can be costly and timeconsuming. But, these problems can be easily addressed. One way to counteract the costs -seniors would incur would be to discount the rate of senior licenses and to have an -optometrist onsite to provide quick vision screenings.
That way, seniors are not paying more for their license than any other driver, and they do not have to pay for an optometry visit each time they renew. They would still have to receive comprehensive optometric exams on their own time, but not at the requirement of the licensing office. Also, in addition to hiring an optometrist, license offices can make minor adjustments to their normal operations to help -cut back on the wait-time for seniors. For example, there could be a senior day on which all -drivers over age seventy automatically get to go to the front of the line. Another issue that elderly drivers could face if mandatory testing laws were enacted would be finding adequate transportation after they no longer have a valid license. Like the above issues, this problem can be easily addressed.
City buses and taxi companies can offer significant discounts for senior citizens. Also, cities can add more bus routes and bus stops, making sure seniors have easy access to public transportation. Local governments or nonprofit organizations can initiate community service programs in which licensed drivers with good driving records volunteer to drive senior citizens to and from work, medical visits, the grocery store, or any other location they may need to visit. Families can also pitch in to see that their parents or grandparents are still able to get around after they are no longer licensed to drive.
Drivers should be licensed for as long as they are safe and able, but states must strive to make sure that only safe and able drivers are on the road. It is sometimes hard to identify who is and who isn’t safe, which is why road and vision tests are used. High-risk groups need special laws, and this includes elderly drivers. I know as well as everybody else that there are many seniors who are great drivers, just as there are teens who are great drivers, but there are also many in each of these age groups who are not. States need to make sure that only the capable drivers in high-risk age groups are on the road. In most states, strict laws are already in place for teenagers, but not for elderly drivers. Now is the time for every state to institute mandatory road and vision tests for drivers over age seventy, before any more unnecessary accidents happen.
Courtney from Study Moose
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