CommunityPam's House Blend

Keeping incompetent elderly drivers (and reckless teens) off the roads

The following is not made up.

Katie told me about this area in Alabama called Homewood, a suburb of Birmingham, where a significant number of elderly citizens live. They frequent the old fashioned strip malls there (the kind where you pull up to the storefronts). An ungodly amount of accidents occurred when a driver (probably with dementia), put the car into drive instead of reverse and shot through the plate glass windows of the stores. On one of Kate’s trips home, she saw a newspaper of yet another incident showing a picture of a storefront with its new ventilation, courtesy of a senior that was confused. There was also an empty baby stroller in the picture, left by a frantic mother that ripped her child from the pram in the nick of time before it was whacked the careening vehicle.

This kind of incident occurred so frequently that a measure to put concrete pylons on the sidewalks to block the cars from racing into the merchandise was proposed. It was turned down because the resident thought it would “ruin the aesthetics” of the community. As if the shattered glass and debris were not an eyesore.

And I know all of you have stories about encounters on the road with people whose skills are compromised by failing vision and cognitive abilities. Lest you think I’m beating up on old folks, you’re wrong, I’m talking about the incompetent ones that are on the road, weaving and clueless to the traffic and pedestrians around them. These folks need to be off of the road before they kill someone or themselves. Statistically, seniors are involved in more fatal crashes. What’s more, if we take those licenses away, there must be transportation alternatives available (vans, buses) for those that live outside of metropolitan areas with good public transportation

Anyway, the reason I am writing about this is because there is a measure up in Wisconsin that calls for elderly drivers to face more frequent license renewal, along with vision and driving competency exams. It’s a good idea, and the seniors agree. (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel):

State lawmakers are considering legislation that would require drivers over age 75 to renew their licenses more frequently, take more frequent vision tests and, after age 85, pass a traffic skills test.

One of the bill’s co-sponsors is Rep. J.A. “Doc” Hines (R-Oxford), who, at age 77, is the oldest member of the Assembly. Hines told the state Assembly’s Committee on Transportation at a Thursday hearing that he’s familiar with the effects of aging – on his friends and himself – and how his driving skills have been affected.

While 7% of drivers over age 65 were involved in crashes in 2003, people over age 70 are more likely to be involved in a crash while driving, and more likely to die in that crash, the state Department of Transportation says. Medical experts testified that seniors commonly face vision problems such as glaucoma, cataracts and macular degeneration, which affect driving. In the meantime, nearly half of those over age 85 have some form of dementia.

…The bill is backed by senior citizen advocacy groups such as AARP and the Coalition of Wisconsin Aging Groups, but some lawmakers were critical because of the harsh impact it could have on elderly drivers who live in remote areas. “It really means, the person has to go to a nursing home or move to an urban area, because there is no Option B,” said Rep. Gary Sherman (D-Port Wing). “It is impossible to live where I live if you don’t drive.”

…Under current law, most people in Wisconsin are only required to renew their licenses and take a vision test every eight years. The bill would change those rules to require people between the ages of 75 and 84 to renew their licenses every three years, and each time they must pass a vision test. For those over age 85, licenses would come up for renewal every two years and would be contingent on passing a vision test and a traffic skills and knowledge test.

The intent is not to keep seniors from driving but to target people “who can’t see, can’t think and shouldn’t be on the road,” said Rep. Sheldon Wasserman (D-Milwaukee), one of the bill’s sponsors. “If you’re 100 years old and you can think and see, you should be (able to drive).”

As far as the other end of the age spectrum goes, at least there are programs in place to corral bad teenage drivers, who are equally dangerous on the road because they are so easily distracted and often reckless because of their lack of experience. In NC, there is a graduated license program to ease young drivers into the responsibility of operating a lethal weapon, and it’s been successful. (News14Carolina):

The Tar Heel state became one of the first states to enact the new rules in the mid 1990’s and car crashes involving teens have dramatically dropped.

“Even though we have more 16-year-olds in the population right now we’re still finding that we have fewer 16-year-olds involved in fatal crashes,” Susan Ferguson of the Institute for Highway Safety explained.

North Carolina’s program requires 16-year-olds to drive with an adult for an entire year. For six months after that they can’t drive from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. and can only have one other driver under 21 in the car. Only then with a clean record can they drive without restrictions.

And there’s no better proof the program is working than the statistics. The number of teens in accidents has dramatically dropped. Bob Foss of the UNC Highway Safety Center said, “Crashes among 16-year-old drivers are down by 34-percent and among 17-year-olds it’s down 21-percent.”

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Pam Spaulding

Pam Spaulding