When I was just four years young, I was seated in the back seat of my great grandfather’s old clunker of a car. It was a big, bad, black behemoth that somehow seemed safe due to these attributes. My great grandfather, hereafter referred to by his name Bill was cruising east bound on Bergenfield, New Jersey’s Main Street. Bill was in his mid to late eighties. For no apparent reason at all, he suddenly jammed on the brakes. This was 53 years ago. There were no child seats and people didn’t even really grasp the need for seatbelts back then. I went flying to the floor and landed right on the top of my head. This may explain the man I would later become, in short somewhat CRAZY.
This piece is not about me however, but more about Bill and others just like him in the present day who are turning our nation’s roads and highways into motoring minefields. By that point in his life Bill had no business being behind the wheel of a large automobile. After that episode my grandmother told Bill in no uncertain terms that she wanted him to relinquish his car keys. Amazingly on that very day that is just what Bill did. Unfortunately in this day and age, and I’m sure back then too, there are always others like Bill who will rant and rave and use every four letter word in the book in their resistance to do the right thing.
People are living longer. At the same time our country’s population is growing. Roads are constantly becoming more and more congested. Roads are becoming more dangerous.
A this point, I invite the reader to read a blog I authored several years back entitled “Driving Miss Crazy” which appeared on my regular blog “Excuse My Logic.” This is the link – http://excusemylogic.wordpress.com/2011/12/05/driving-miss-crazy/ In this blog I related several anecdotes about just how insane it can get when people who are passed the age of being safe drivers continue to drive anyway.
Just to summarize those anecdotes, there was the case of Mrs. P. She was a neighbor of my parents. She was backing out of her parking space at the local supermarket and rammed into a passing car. The police came, took all the necessary information and recommended that Mrs. P stay off the roads. To the amazement of the gathered people, Mrs. P got back in her car and backed into the same car a second time!
The other anecdote didn’t have such a happy ending. It concerns an uncle of mine who had suffered a stroke. He kept driving and I often warned senior members of our family that he should be grounded from driving. He walked with a cane and I believe his reaction time was way off the charts. Predictably he had an accident one day. Whether he had suffered a stroke prior to or right after the accident we’ll never know. When the police arrived, they spoke to him and took his paperwork. By the time they returned to his window he had already lost his ability to speak! Several days later he died. His stubbornness at refusing to stop driving probably killed him and luckily didn’t kill others.
There are powerful lobbies at work in this country I’m sure, most notably being the AARP and AAA that fight for the rights of their elderly constituents to be allowed to remain on the roads. These lobbyists are aiding in the creation of dangerous roads.
We as a society throw large sums of money and effort into the prevention of drunk teenage and adult driving. For example, Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) is a very well organized and admirable institution. However, on the issue of allowing elders to continue driving it seems to me we are rather lax. I firmly believe that my uncle the stroke victim’s reaction time (one of the critical measures of a driver’s ability to avoid accidents) was just as poor as your average drunk driver’s.
I believe even the auto insurance industry may be partially to blame for the current state of affairs. Traditionally, new young drivers are thrown into the high risk pool. Once they prove themselves and have aged ten or fifteen years, they are considered low risk drivers provided they have a good driving record. Older people and most importantly, very old people get the best rates provided they have demonstrated good driving performance. The whole process is very deceptive though. An elderly person who suffers a sudden severe health setback (ie. partial blindness, loss of hearing, etc) may not have this change in health documented by the insurance companies for quite some time. Ergo, no one says anything and the elderly person continues to drive with insurance rates the same as before the onset of illness. If an unsafe elderly driver were to receive a large insurance premium increase he might think twice about driving anymore.
We are collectively ignoring what I believe is a sort of Bell Curve that exists when charting driving performance. At the bottom left of the curve sits the new, inexperienced driver. He is granted, a high risk on the road. At the top center of the curve sits the young adults to middle aged people. At the opposite bottom side of the curve rests the elderly, millions of them who continue driving unsafely with impunity.
We need to act for all of our safety, including the safety of those very elderly people I am calling out. This is not meant to bash the elderly. However, it is time to require periodic mandatory road tests for people past a certain age or at least for people who have recently suffered a critical change in their health status.
In my working years after I was a journalist, I spent almost fifteen years as a limo driver for both airport services and important CEOs. I have logged hundreds and hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of miles on the roads. I consider myself an excellent driver. Yet today, as I pull into local shopping center parking lots I am appalled and terrified by what I see on a regular basis. You see elderly people requiring three or four minutes just to navigate their car into a parking space. Again, the issue is reaction time. If a person takes this long to execute a simple parking maneuver I submit that they are probably a danger to both themselves and others if set free on a high speed road.
If you agree with my suggestion for mandatory road tests please write your state and federal government officials. If you disagree with my suggestion then at least do yourself and all of us a great favor. Tell your aging parent or grandparent that you are going to be their designated driver. It could very well save their lives and the lives of others who may cross their paths.