A tragic accident in Bradenton on Sunday claimed the lives of three people, while leaving four more seriously injured. The 79-year old driver of a large SUV reportedly became confused about what gear the vehicle was in and backed into a crowd of people who were talking in a parking lot after church. As with all tragedies, we should ask ourselves what can be learned, but in this case the takeaway is already known: Florida simply does not have adequate measures to ensure that its enormous population of elderly drivers remain capable of safely operating motor vehicles as they age.
This has been an issue that has caused me great concern since moving to the state in 2001. Jokes about staying away from slow-moving Lincoln Town Cars and stretch Cadillacs were always tinged with a drop of seriousness, and often followed by real stories of frightening experiences related to an elderly driver in a very large car, usually changing lanes without a signal, while that person panicked in the blind spot.
I used to have motorcycles, but stopped riding in 2003 when within just six months, two friends were struck while obeying all traffic laws by elderly drivers who turned into the biker's lane, hanging lefts at green lights when they didn't have the right of way. One was killed, the other maimed and suffers permanent disabilities. Both drivers explained that they had been confused by the green light and did not realize they had to yield without a turn arrow.
Let me stipulate that I am in no way saying that there are not highly-capable drivers in the 70's. I personally know drivers in their 80's who are quite spry; I've ridden in their cars and have no more concern than I would with friends my age. In many cases, I might even have less.
I'm also not suggesting that there aren't more menacing drivers in other age groups. Because of the disproportionately-high rate of fatalities in accidents involving teen drivers (especially 16 and 17 year-olds) I'm also an advocate of raising the minimum age for a driver's license to 18.
The risk factors with young drivers are harder to isolate in each driver, but we know that the reflexes required to safely operate a motor vehicle deteriorate with age – vision, reaction time and other proprioceptive skills that help us remain aware of our place in space and time and react to sudden changes. We also know that momentary bouts of confusion and failed concentration increase as we get older.
Currently, Florida requires that when a person turns 80, they have to renew their license every six years instead of every eight. They also have to take a vision test with each renewal. That seems not only like a late start, but rather token measures as well.
The driver involved in Sunday's accident had a valid driver's license without restrictions, though she reportedly used a walker to assist her mobility when she wasn't driving. The vehicle she was operating, a Chevrolet Tahoe, has a curb weight of around 5,500 pounds and more than 300 horsepower even in its base engine, according to Edmunds.com. I don't think I'm the only reasonable person to see some red flags.
Seniors are a fiercely independent group, who are often quite unwilling to give up even small measures of self-reliance. I remember my family's struggle to take my late grandfather's car off of him – even after an accident – when his senses began to fail and it became painfully clear that he was not safe behind the wheel of a motor vehicle, nor were others around him.
Imagine telling a man who'd spent his entire life driving a truck professionally – often towing double trailers or unthinkably-large concrete bridge beams – that you had decided it was time for him to hand over the keys. Unfortunately, short of having courts rule that a family member is incapable of making decisions for themselves, there is often very little that can be done. That is why, like so many tricky matters in which we all have very large and sometimes competing stakes, the issue is best solved by sensible regulation.
I'm not going to pretend to have a perfect solution as to what that would look like, but I know we are falling dangerously short. For starters, tests should probably become much more involved by a certain age, to ensure that a person's physical and mental faculties are up to snuff. Greater frequency would also seem an obvious measure, as a person's faculties can change much more quickly at higher ages. We might also consider limited licenses, in which drivers of a certain age are restricted to certain classes of vehicles. As skills deteriorate, a driver may be perfectly capable of safely operating a Ford Fiesta, while not being suitable for a vehicle like the one in question. Nighttime driving might be another area that is limited or would require specific testing beyond a certain age.
Because operating a motor vehicle in an unsafe manner immediately puts the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness of others at risk, we must accept that a certain degree of sensible rule and regulation is applied – hence speed limits, DUI laws, seat belt regulations, mandatory insurance, even licenses themselves.
The idea that each driver should possess a minimum degree of necessary faculties to safely operate a vehicle is an inherent part of that logic. We must do more to ensure that age-related degradation of those faculties is monitored and a reasonable balance between each party's rights is struck. Right now, we're doing next to nothing. With the elderly population set to double in just 25 years, that could be a fateful oversight – especially here in the Sunshine State.
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