When Should You Stop Driving?

Many years ago, in her mid-80s, my mother-in-law announced that she would no longer be driving her car.

She never said why. She just knew that it was time to hang up her keys.

My mother, after letting her license expire, not only failed the driving test but was lectured, loudly, about her incredibly awful driving skills by the test administrator and told never to get behind a wheel again.

An elderly aunt, on the other hand, is still driving at age 91. She is certainly capable of it, physically and mentally. And, in fact, she complains about one of her friends who drives incredibly (and dangerously I might add) slow.

The subject comes up in the State House frequently. Constituents want to get their revoked licenses back. Relatives want me to arrange to licenses taken away from their elderly relatives. Others want a mandatory cutoff, based on age, for license renewals. Others want more drivers tests for people over a certain age. Still others think you should be allowed to drive, well, forever.

Massachusetts, like most states, requires a vision test for renewal of a license. But that’s about it. Renewals are good for five years. Only 11 states have age-based license renewal requirements to determine if seniors should keep their licenses.

The Gerontology Institute in Boston has released a new research report, "Driving 2000," which takes a look at driving in Massachusetts. Taking part in the study were physicians, law officers, and people 50 and older.

Some of their discoveries include the fact that older drivers are likely to experience an increased accident rate per mile, even thought they drive fewer miles. They’re also at a greater risk of dying in an automobile accident. And, research shows that, as drivers age, driving skills decline.

The research also noted that elderly drivers are at fault a disproportionately high percentage of the time when they are involved in accidents.

Bottom line of the study: there should be periodic assessment of the driving skills of people as they age, and an age should be set for that reassessment.

Those surveyed also agreed that vision and road tests should be administered. Other criteria studied and considered were alertness, flexibility, hearing, memory, history of moving violations, and types of medication taken.

Finally, most respondents felt that the driver, his (or her) family, his physician and the Department of Motor Vehicles should share responsibility of deciding when driving should end.

How about police responsibility? The report noted that police officers, who fail to cite or ticket an elderly person, are inadvertently condoning unsafe driving.

Meanwhile, the American Medical Association has suggested that doctors notify their state department of motor vehicles of patients with medical conditions that adversely affect driving. Opponents might say that it’s a matter of public safety vs. confidentiality. Families will be happy–it’s easier to let the doctor take the responsibility. "The doctor won’t let you drive," is easier to say than "I don’t want you to drive any more."

Is it a doctor’s responsibility, or should states put stronger restrictions on elderly drivers? Should doctors, family members and police officers be mandated to report impaired elderly drivers to the Registry? Should there be more standardized tests for the elderly?

Should there be mental tests? Road tests? Drug tests? Reaction time tests? More regulations?

If more regulations go into effect, how many people would be affected? Well, one in three drivers is over 55. And, there are more drivers than ever before, because people are more and more dependent on cars.

Loss of life? It’s estimated that 7,000 older drivers die in automobile accidents every year, with Florida having the most.

The big question–the right to drive vs. the protection of others.

Suggestions from the survey included plans to promote public awareness and encourage participation in safe-driving programs, with an incentive of lower insurance rates for successful completion.

No decisions have been made, so it is still up to the driver to self-impose limits, or to decide when to stop driving. Adult children and spouses can play a role, as well as law officers.

Should we go further?

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