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Are We Older Drivers a Menace?

By Bruce Frassinelli

Before the COVID-19 pandemic threw a monkey wrench into long-distance driving, I made a 1,000-mile trek to see my son and his family in South Carolina then went on to see some other family members in the Nashville area.

At age 80, I thought how fortunate I was to be able to drive long distances without any major consequences or hassles. I was also helping the economy with overnight stays, meals at a variety of restaurants and gasoline to keep my car humming along.

While I am dislocating my arm patting myself on the back, some of you may have recoiled wondering why an octogenarian is risking his life and the lives of other motorists by making such a long trip.

Shame on you for your ageism thoughts, but on one level I can understand it. 

Quite frankly, between you and me, when I was in my 50s I thought the same thing when I heard that an 80-something driver was involved in an accident. I even had the misguided notion that there should be an age limit on driving, maybe 75, certainly no later than 80. 

Once I reached that age, and all was well, I chastised myself for having such stupid ideas.

Slowing reflexes, dimming eyesight and fading hearing can all impair an older person’s driving ability. Many diseases and over-medication also increase the risk of crashes.

I guess it is only natural that now that I am at this age myself, I have a different view. I am in reasonably good health. I take an AARP-sponsored driver’s safety course every three years, and I have given explicit orders to my three children that if they perceive that I am becoming a danger to myself or others, I will go quietly. If I don’t, I told them, turn me in, and take my keys.

Let’s face it: Most of us equate the open road with independence — the idea that we can go and come as we please. Those who can’t drive because of age-related disabilities or reaction-time issues must either rely on others to get them from point A to point B or, basically, stay at home. Some are fortunate enough to have family members serve as chauffeurs; some live near public transportation, and a few others might have the wherewithal to summon a taxi or an Uber or other ride-share service.

Like most of you, I started driving when I was 16. I practiced learning to drive in a wide open area between two cemeteries in my hometown. I learned on my father’s 1951 stick shift Chevy panel truck, which he used for our family’s grocery store business. (Oh the memories that were etched in that panel truck, but that’s a story for another day.)

When I first got my license, I cruised down my hometown’s main drag and those of nearby communities often with friends sitting on peach baskets in the back of the truck. That’s right. There were no seatbelts. Aside from the driver’s and front passenger’s seats, there were no other seats in the truck. When my dad was in a really good mood, he handed over the keys to his pride and joy: his 1955 red-and-white Buick Roadmaster. 

The automobile was my passport to exploring new communities, new states and cool sites. I remember on several occasions that my friends and I drove from our hometown to Philadelphia — a 120-mile round trip — for coffee and a piece of pie. One of the main points of driving was getting attention from girls. It was something I pretty much took for granted.

As I have aged, I notice slight discomforts. I have to stop more often (if only to pee). Depending on the time of day, I can get really tired. It is not uncommon for me on a four-hour trip to Upstate New York, where I once lived and worked, to pull into a rest stop for a 15-minute power nap.

The wave of older drivers and high-profile accidents involving my age group have caught the attention of law-enforcement and state officials, prompting both to call for programs that would aim to allow seniors to keep driving if they can do so without endangering others and themselves.

According to USA Today, quoting U.S. Census projections, the number of U.S. drivers 65 and older will jump from 41.7 million this year to 55 million in 2030. Today, about 20% of all drivers on the road are 65 or older, and that number will soon jump to 25%, according to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

More and more states are implementing additional and more frequent testing of seniors, particularly those who are in my age group — 80 and older. 

In Maryland, state law allows doctors, police and residents, especially relatives, to refer suspected unfit drivers to the Motor Vehicle Administration’s medical advisory board. Police have been referring about 700 drivers a year – about 60% of them 65 and over. In some cases, drivers are retested. 

A 2004 Florida law requiring older drivers to pass a vision test before getting a license renewal has helped cut the death toll among drivers 80 or older by 17%, according to researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

The problem in trying to come up with a solution to this touchy issue is that people age so differently that it’s impossible to devise a fair single standard for ending driving privileges. One 80-year-old may be perfectly fine and responsible behind the wheel; another 80-year-old motorist can be a ticking time bomb and a menace to others on the road.

Researchers caution against stereotyping older drivers. Thomas Meuser, a gerontologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, told USA Today that most older Americans are safe and cautious drivers. “The challenge is older drivers with subtle but progressive health issues that affect them without their knowledge,” he said.

Mental health practitioners who deal with the elderly caution that driving is important for seniors, particularly for their sense of independence and self-worth. Seniors passionately resist wanting to become a burden on others. Several studies have shown that grounding seniors who have no other available transportation depresses them, makes them inactive and causes them to lose access to health care, resulting in some cases to an earlier death.

The New York Department of Motor Vehicles requires anyone — regardless of age — who has three accidents in a three-month period to undergo a mandatory road retest. It also requires those between the ages of 25 and 65 who have had three accidents in a nine-month period to fill out a re-examination questionnaire. Based on its findings, the department will decide whether a retest is needed. Those under 25 and over 65 who have three accidents in a nine-month period must take a re-examination.

The state DMV also has a program to retest suspect drivers who are referred by relatives or others if there is mitigating evidence to support the need for such a retest. 

One of the toughest things children must do is to convince reluctant parents to give up their keys. There are many tips for those who must broach this conversation, but they are advised to focus the conversation on specific driving concerns and not on just their age. They are also advised to start a dialogue of addressing these specific concerns and address why they are worrying you by using examples of specific instances such as their fear of night driving or being uncomfortable with driving on the highway.