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When Individual Freedom Collides With Public Safety
By Kathy Hare

          When 86 year old Russell Weller drove his car into a crowded farmer's market in California killing 10 people and injuring 45, it sparked a national debate over "when is someone too old to drive."

          A week after Weller's accident, Time Magazine polled readers asking how states should license older drivers.  By far the overwhelming response was to impose mandatory driving tests at a certain age to determine if an individual still has the physical and mental capacity to drive. 

          But the AARP, which represents a significant block of elderly voters, quickly rallied to oppose any legislation that would impose mandatory testing based on age.  Maureen Smile, media representative for the AARP in Denver said, "Individuals age differently, therefore, the AARP believes testing should be done on an individual basis, when family members or a doctor suspect an elderly person may no longer be fit to drive."

          While Smile's point that individuals age differently is well taken, the current AARP policy does little to prevent needless deaths caused by drivers with age-related health issues.

          Plus, with the Baby Boomer generation on the fast track to old age, relying on doctors and families to determine when a person should stop driving becomes more problematic each year.

          By 2030, one out of four drivers in America will be 65 or older.  For the safety of the general public, and to help keep insurance rates down, it makes sense to impose mandatory age-based driving tests before 25 percent of all drivers reach an age where most people experience a decline in their physical or mental abilities.

          Bea Crandall, an active senior citizen in Falcon, asked if there are "any statistics showing how many seniors kill or maim themselves or others simply because they are a certain age."     

          The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety maintains age-based statistics, which show that property damage liability claims are higher in the over 70 age-group than in people 25 to 69 years old.  And by time a driver reaches 85 property damage claims increase dramatically. 

          Drivers over 70, and their passengers, also have soaring death rates, even surpassing those of drivers under age 25; the age-group which pays the highest insurance premiums because of their overall accident rate.   

          While this fact wasn't obvious in the past, the institute is now looking at accident rates based on the number of miles driven by all age groups, and per mile the over 70 age-group experiences more fatalities.   But the institute does caution, "The fragility of seniors may play a large part in their higher death rates."

          However, unlike the AARP, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety does urge states to develop "valid and feasible driver screening tests," to help decide if seniors need to modify their driving habits or relinquish their keys.

          Certainly, taking away someone's drivers license is devastating to the individual, especially in areas of the country like Falcon where little or no public transpiration is available.  A person's independence is immediately gone and they must rely on the kindness of neighbors and relatives for their basic transportation needs.  So every effort should be made to extend the time period the elderly can drive, while also protecting public safety.

          Germany, a country which already has a high percentage of elderly drivers, conducted a study to see if highway safety improvements could decrease the number of accidents caused by senior drivers.  They found half of the accidents in which elderly drivers were at fault occurred because seniors more often disregarded the right of way when making a left hand turn. 

          "Green means go to seniors," the study concluded.  Therefore, installing traffic lights with protected left-hand turn signals has become a top priority for the German government.

          The insurance institute has taken notice of the German study, and found intersections without protected left-hand turn signals are also a problem for seniors in this country.  In addition, they found installing pedal extensions and bigger side and rearview mirrors helps to decrease accident rates among elderly drivers. 

           El Paso County officials recently announced the transportation department will soon begin installing road signs with larger letters to help senior drivers.

          While all of these improvements may help extend the time elderly drivers can stay on the road, we as a society must still decide what to do when individual freedom collides with public safety.

          Deciding when a driver must give up their keys because they are no longer fit to drive is too important a decision to be left to the individual or their families.  As driving manuals throughout this country state, "Driving is a privilege not a right."  Therefore, age-based testing should hardly be considered an infringement of anyone's rights.

          Before supporting efforts by the AARP to stop mandatory testing, seniors should remember their children and grandchildren would also like to live to a ripe old age.  

First published in The New Falcon Herald
Article Copyright © 2007 Bluestack Consulting, Inc.
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