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Elderly Drivers - Unsafe at Any Speed?

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In El Monte, California, an 85-year-old man drives onto a patio at a Starbucks in California, injuring 10 people, 2 critically. California authorities say it is "unlikely" he will be charged, calling the accident a "simple mistake."

An 86-year-old-man in Moultrie, Georgia test-drives a car alone from a dealership, runs a red light and plows into a pickup truck. The driver of the truck is ejected and suffers brain damage. The man had a history of cataracts in both eyes, a history of hearing loss in both ears, a history of vertigo and had difficulty using his lower right leg, the attorney said. He is now in a nursing home, never charged.

An 89-year-old man driving through a crowded festival in New London, Connecticut hits a pedestrian, panics and plows his car through the crowd, injuring 27. He was eventually charged with one count of reckless driving.

In Houston, Texas, a 77-year-old woman drives her car through the plate-glass windows of a manufacturing company. Three people inside are injured from the flying glass. The woman was not injured and no citations were issued.

A 79-year-old man enters the Sunrise Highway in Seaford, New York going the wrong way. He struck a minivan and killed the driver of the van. Police said the elderly man was driving on a restricted license and that he had no idea of the damage he caused.

An elderly woman (no age given) driving into the parking lot of a beauty school in Oceanside, North Carolina steps on the gas instead of the brake and hits two students. One is taken to a trauma hospital with serious injuries. The elderly driver is unhurt.

A 93-year old-man in St. Petersburg, Florida, is traveling about 45 mph when he hits a man crossing the street, severing the pedestrian's right leg. The man then drives three miles, apparently unaware the body of the 52-year-old man is stuck in the windshield. When police ask him what had happened, he says that the body seemed to drop from the sky. He's suffering from dementia and is totally unaware he'd been involved in an accident.

All of these accidents occurred within the last 9 months and represent but a small part of the havoc that impaired elderly drivers cause annually.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), "In the past 25 years the number of drivers 70 and older has grown three times as fast as the total U.S. driver population, and it's estimated that by 2020, twenty percent of the U.S. population will be 65 and older.

Older drivers rank far lower than other drivers for incidents of dangerous aggressive driving behavior, but they tend to make more driving errors than other drivers in congested areas and where quick comprehension of signs is required.

Drivers 85 and older are eleven times more likely to die in a crash than drivers age 40 to 49. Part of this is due to the increased frailty of very old drivers, but per mileage traveled, the likelihood of a being in an accident is significantly higher for older drivers."

In a study published in the Journal of Sports and Exercise Psychology , a participating study professor said, "The likelihood of elderly drivers becoming involved in anxiety-related accidents is higher than that for the average population, There's a lot of research to indicate that as we get older, there's a slowing-down in the information-processing system. If you couple that with anxiety or a situation where you're presented with obstacles, the elderly have a better chance of being impaired, simply because their systems are not as fine-tuned as those of younger people."

The magazine American Family Physician says, "Athough elderly persons drive fewer miles than younger drivers, they are involved in a disproportionate number of fatal accidents when adjustments are made for the distance traveled."

I daresay that if someone who was NOT considered elderly plowed into pedestrians and other innocent bystanders, or drove the wrong way on a highway, or committed some other dangerous or fatal driving error, that person would be charged with a serious offense quicker than you can say "Mickey Mouse."

This is patently unfair. Elderly drivers must be tested for cognitive awareness, vision and response time before being issued renewal licenses. Some states have instituted this practice while others have not. And while there are many perfectly responsible and healthy older drivers, the accident incidence of impaired elderly drivers causing death and destruction is rising rapidly as the US population ages.

I am perfectly aware that I am only 10 years away from the age limit I would suggest - 65 - for testing to begin. But this type of mandatory check would save countless lives on the road each year and perhaps prevent insurance rates from a spectacular leap as more and more of us reach the "golden years."

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RC deWinter is an essayist, poet, photographer, singer-songwriter and civil servant who lives and works in the Connecticut River Valley.
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