- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 21, 2003

I’ve had the experience, and maybe you have too: You see some car doing something utterly crazy, such as traveling down the wrong side of the road, and then you get a peek at the driver, discovering that this one does not seem drunk. This one is not talking on a cell phone. This one is simply elderly.

It’s scary stuff, but witnessing such perilous lapses could become more frequent: Because Baby Boomers are aging, we are building toward a time in three decades when 25 percent of our drivers will be over 65.

True, some people should have their licenses yanked in their youth while others may be highly competent behind the wheel into their 90s. On average, though, our faculties start failing us as we get older. There is often diminution of vision, for example, and not just straight-ahead acuity; your peripheral vision may weaken, meaning you are less likely to notice the car at your side, and your eyes may become less discerning of dark-light contrasts, meaning you can’t make much out at night.

If you survey articles on the subject as I have, you also learn that arthritis is more than a pain; it is a driving detriment. You are less flexible than once you were. A consequence could be that you are unable to glance to the side when changing lanes. You may not react as quickly as you once did, which is to say that the pedestrian who suddenly walks in front of your car is also suddenly hit. None of us enjoys thinking about it, but the mind can go, too. Dementia and driving do not mix.

But much of life is car-centered in America today, and it can be a crippling experience in more than one sense when a person gives up — or is forced to give up — driving. You cannot just come and go as you please, whether it is to shop or visit friends or see a movie or get a haircut. You become far more reliant on others. And for many, observers further note, the reminder of incapacities can be a mighty blow to the ego.

There are issues here for groups serving the elderly, for researchers and doctors, for the elderly themselves and relatives of the elderly, and for state governments. There is a risk on one side of unfairness and cruelty. There is a risk on the other side of accidents — some of them fatal — that could have been prevented.

Fortunately, ours is a society that tries in many ways to compensate for infirmities. I have learned in my reading on the subject that associations for the elderly afford members classes to sharpen their driving skills and avoid difficult situations. Research — some of it funded by the federal government — should help doctors and others detect driving problems and aid in overcoming those that can be overcome. Manufacturers are producing a variety of devices useful to elderly drivers, such as special side-view mirrors that help make up for bad peripheral vision.

None of that may be enough, finally. There will often come a point when a person’s driving must cease. Ideally, it would be the elderly person, acting on his or her own, who comes to recognize the danger to self and others and who gives up the car keys, no matter how distressing.

But human beings of all ages can fool themselves, and human beings of all ages can act irresponsibly. It may then fall to family and friends to try to convince the person to quit driving, or to suggest to a motor-vehicles department that the person be tested. Sometimes, it’s reported, family members will go so far as to sell the car or hide the keys.

State governments have perhaps the most important role in all this. Those that don’t already must work out schemes to test actual driving abilities on a regular basis as drivers reach their 70s. While all sorts of particulars are debatable, it’s not debatable that people should be disallowed the privilege of wielding that deadly instrument known as a car when they cannot wield it safely.

Jay Ambrose is director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard Newspapers.

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