It took the death of a 15 year old California girl, Brandi Mitock, to pass a law requiring elderly drivers to take a written and road test at age 75 or older here in California. She was killed by a 96 year old motorist that hadn’t taken a road test since 1918– that was day he received his driver’s license! Although rules in states vary greatly, here in California, after age 70, no driver may get automatic renewals through the mail. Is this a case of age discrimination like many see it? Or is it a safety measure geared to save lives here in California? Let’s look at the facts and you can decide.
In the latest data available from the National Highway Traffic Administration, 12% of the U.S. population is now 65 or older and 28 million are licensed drivers. That is a 17% increase from 1994. More and more people are living longer and of course, driving. Elderly drivers make up 15% of all traffic fatalities, 7% of all accidents and 20% of all pedestrian fatalities throughout the U.S.
California has a large number of retired persons. Moreover, we are second only to Florida in total fatal crashes caused by driver involvement of elderly people. For total fatal crashes, we have the highest accident rate causing personal injury amongst 65 and older age group. In fact, once a person reaches 80 years old and is still driving, the injury accident rate is similar to teen drivers-not a good comparison! Although they have fewer crashes, the ones that they are in are more serious.
California state law only requires doctors to report demented patients to the DMV, but that does not include other impairments such as medication use, loss of vision, hearing and response time. The American Medical Association has issued ethical opinions regarding the physician’s responsibility to older drivers, but as you might imagine, this is a delicate matter and doctor’s can only give their opinion, not prohibit their patient from driving. It is ultimately up to the person to turn in their license.
If you suspect someone you know needs to cut back or turn in their license completely, here are some guidelines to handle this in a sensitive way. Remember, driving is a symbol of independences; ability to visit friends and shop when they want. This is not an easy task.
First, if you suspect only a few small changes, maybe they just need a few changes in their routine. Older drivers’ eyesight deteriorates, so they need more light to see, are more sensitive to glare and have a narrower peripheral field of vision. Suggest that they only drive during the day, only to familiar locations, drive with a friend, avoid freeways and drive close to home.
Second, if you really think they need to turn in their license and they won’t, here are some ways to intervene. If you need some help to start the conversation, check out these ‘conversation starters”, at www.thehartford.com and look for the publication, “elderly drivers”.
Discuss alternative modes of transportation. Here in Orange County, California, we are fortunate to have good senior services in most cities. Visit www.eldercare.gov for a comprehensive resource of (mostly) free senior transportation services in your community.
L astly, Take the keys or disable the car. If this doesn’t work then you must contact your local DMV and report your concerns. Depending on your states’ regulations, they will definitely send a letter and that might jolt them into understanding the impact of driving. Ultimately it will be up to the DMV to evaluate the driver’s capabilities.
Remember that whether you are 16 or 85, driving an automobile is a gift, not a right. It is our responsibility to be the safest driver possible through good decision making.