How increasing road tests for the elderly could save money and lives

    In Illinois, it may soon be illegal to text your friends while behind the wheel. Talking on your cell phone without a hands-free phone will get you a ticket in California. States all over the country have enacted countless laws to keep drivers safe on the roads, but lawmakers have failed to properly address what should be a growing concern for all drivers: senior citizens.

    Millions of baby boomers are hitting their golden years, and with country club memberships and vacations to the Greek isles come diminished eyesight, limited hearing and slower reaction times. Putting elderly drivers on the road when they’re facing such diminished capacities is not only dangerous to them, but also could be lethal to other drivers. Texan teenager Katie Bolka’s death was the most visual case of negligent homicide, but she certainly wasn’t the only one. Something should be done to minimize the risk that other such tragedies occur.

    Illinois and New Hampshire are the only two states who mandate that elderly drivers, those over 75, appear at the Department of Motor Vehicles or the Secretary of State and take a road test to renew their driver’s licenses. Unfortunately, far too many states have a multitude of restrictions on teen drivers, but none on drivers over age 65. About 20 states have no restrictions on renewals, and Oklahoma actually encourages drivers over 65 to renew their licenses online by waiving their renewal fee.

    This is not just an issue of protecting others on the road, but also protecting the drivers themselves. A 2004 study by AAA showed that drivers over 65 were more likely to get in a crash than middle aged drivers, and drivers over 85 were four times more likely than teen drivers to do so. They were also four times more likely to die in a crash. Some may argue that decreasing motor privileges for the elderly is discrimination, but in fact it could lead to longer lives for many.

    According to a 1995 study by the Journal of the American Medical Association, the only sure way to decrease fatalities by elderly drivers is to have them appear at the DMV. According to the NHTSA, elderly drivers now make up 9 percent of the total driving population, but cause or are involved in 14 percent of all traffic accidents and 17 percent of all pedestrian accidents.

    The U.S. Census Bureau predicts that these numbers will continue to rise. There will be more than 9 million drivers over the age of 85 by 2030 (about 25 percent of the driving population), according to the Census Bureau, which means more and more drivers with less-than-stellar reaction times will be competing with everyone else on the road.

    What’s the solution to this problem? Drivers who are incapable of performing necessary duties should not be on the roads. It’s an extreme solution that would prove difficult for lawmakers to back — they wouldn’t want to alienate a huge contingent of the voter base — but it’s something that is imperative for safety on roads and highways.

    In the majority of states, once a driver has passed his initial road test, there is only a vision test requirement when a license expires. In Michigan, drivers receive a card in the mail when their licenses are about to expire. The card asks if they would like to renew their license, and it’s about as simple as checking “yes” or “no.”

    Even for states with a vision test requirement, it is simply not enough. While a driver’s vision may be corrected to near-perfection with glasses or contact lenses, reaction time and mental acuity are not as easily assessable with a simple visit to the DMV.

    The solution is not to completely overhaul the system, but to adopt a more thorough screening for high-risk drivers. Instead of an easy renewal system, all drivers should be mandated to take a road test when they renew their license after reaching a certain age. It would not only make sure that all drivers understand the rules of the road (and minimize those pesky habits like rolling through stop signs), but it would keep everyone safe.

    Washington, D.C. has the most thorough laws regarding elderly drivers and renewals, which seem to be fair. After the age of 70, drivers are not only required to pass a vision test, but are also required to have a doctor’s note certifying that they are fit to drive. They may have to submit to a reaction time test, and after age 75 may be required to take a written test and a road test.

    Some may argue that the costs of administering extra tests would be an unwise economic choice, but the increase in safety measures would have positive economic effects. The increased costs of administering tests would be counteracted by the drop in medical costs from fewer instances of accidents. Elderly drivers’ vehicle mortality rates are second only to those of teenagers, so they put a huge strain on hospital emergency rooms when accidents do happen.

    The average cost of a road test is no more than $60, but the average emergency room visit was $560. This average does not even take into account an injured person who is transferred to the I.C.U. or another wing of the hospital.

    Having senior citizens tested will save lives while saving money. The best way to get these laws passed is to write your state or national representatives and inform them of this problem. Let your voice be heard, and help make our roads safer.


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