Accidents accelerate with age

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June 9, 2009
WISDOM MAY increase with age, but so do difficulties making left turns and backing up. There is good reason for the Legislature to place tighter restrictions on licensing elderly drivers whose common conditions, ranging from hearing and visual impairments to foot abnormalities, create dangers on the roadways.

Thirteen people suffered injuries in recent accidents involving two elderly drivers. In Plymouth, a 73-year-old motorist jumped the curb and plowed into a crowd at a war memorial ceremony. In Danvers, a 93-year-old man mistook the accelerator for the brake and barreled into the entrance of a Wal-Mart. Similar incidents occur with frightening regularity nationwide. Crash rates per mile gain speed for drivers over age 65, according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration. By age 85, the crash rates are nine times as high as those for drivers aged 25 to 69.

Responsible lawmakers can’t avert their eyes any longer, regardless of the political clout of the elderly. Ideally, Massachusetts drivers over age 65 should be required to take a road test every five years as a condition for license renewal. Yet the elderly driver bill with the most currency on Beacon Hill wouldn’t impose such restrictions until age 85. That’s not good enough, especially in light of an aging population.

Opponents of age-based retests make the case that no two people age exactly alike. Why, they argue, waste time and money testing a road-worthy 70-year-old? It might be a compelling argument if Massachusetts had a physician reporting law similar to Oregon’s, which uses medical impairment as the touchstone to determine a person’s eligibility to drive. But the law here is as cloudy as a cataract-covered lens. Elderly drivers in Massachusetts can avoid even a simple vision test for up to a decade by availing themselves of mail-in license renewals.

Minimally, the Legislature should adopt a bill sponsored by state Representative Kay Khan of Newton, directing every physician in the state to alert the Registry of Motor Vehicles to cognitive and physical impairments that affect their patients’ ability to drive. How to proceed next would be determined by the RMV’s medical advisers.

Khan says the bill enjoys support from elderly advocates, including the AARP, because it would apply to drivers regardless of age. But experience with similar laws in other states, including Pennsylvania, show the law is especially effective at flagging elderly drivers. Khan’s legislation could be improved, however, by unequivocally mandating the compliance of physicians.

Sometimes respect for the elderly means taking away their car keys

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