A solution to the older driver conundrum
He was an 80-year-old behind the wheel of an SUV. In March, he became the centerpiece of a major disaster — and a major controversy.
The driver lost control of his vehicle on a sunny weekday. He smashed into diners having lunch outside the Parthenon Restaurant in Northwest Washington. Two diners were killed and nine others were seriously injured.
No one has fully explained how the crash happened — not the authorities, and not the driver himself. Maybe he mistook the accelerator for the brake? Maybe he had a medical emergency? Not clear.
Regardless, the aftermath resurfaced an issue that has divided the senior community and their relatives for decades: Should an octogenarian still have a driver’s license?
And if you vote yes, should he or she be re-tested regularly to see if he/she still has the requisite abilities behind the wheel?
So many seniors see this issue as a matter of rights. To revoke their license — or require re-testing — would limit their mobility, their social lives, their easy access to shopping and healthcare.
“Why, who are these young whippersnappers who want us to go quietly into oblivion, or into a taxi or a bus?” they ask. “We have the same rights to drive a motor vehicle as anyone else!”
Re-testing seniors only would be a double standard, this line of reasoning argues. Either re-test everyone or no one.
On the other side are what I call the Practical People.
They insist that they are not trying to cancel any senior’s rights. But they quickly add that seniors may be the worst judges of how poor their reflexes, their eyesight and their awareness have become. Safety, the Practical People argue, is everyone’s job.
The controversy has never come close to being resolved. It won’t be easily resolved after the Parthenon horror, either.
But here’s an idea that both sides should consider: Voluntary re-testing.
Drivers above a certain age — let’s say 70, for the sake of argument — would agree to be re-tested on or near each birthday. They would agree ahead of time to accept a negative result.
The re-test would be much more rigorous than the once-over-lightly exam we all took when we first got a license, all those decades ago. The re-test would put the driver inside a simulator with a wheel and pedals.
The simulator would serve up video of actual traffic conditions. Besides measuring how long it takes to brake in an emergency, the re-test would peg peripheral vision and visual acuity in bad weather or darkness.
A sub-par result, as pre-determined by medical experts, would cancel a license on the spot.
Yes, this may sound harsh. But my hunch is that many seniors might embrace it as a way of providing extra safety for everyone.
Yes, losing a license might impose economic hardship on some seniors. If they still work, a car might be the only convenient passport to that workplace and that income.
But public transportation is vastly more available and more reliable than it once was. Meanwhile, volunteer organizations have sprung up to offer free rides to seniors caught in just such a situation.
Yes, losing a license might cause isolation and depression among seniors suddenly denied the right to drive. But both of those can be overcome by shoe leather, therapy and will.
Yes, voluntary re-testing would drive up the costs of running a motor vehicle bureau. But compare that to the costs that accompany a disaster — emergency services, medical care, insurance claims, possible lawsuits, lost human life. It isn’t close.
Finally, voluntary re-testing would produce what is so often missing in the modern world — a nice, warm feeling.
Imagine a senior who voluntarily re-tests — and aces the test. The test-giver would offer a sticker — similar to the I VOTED sticker we get on Election Day.
The sticker could say I AM STILL A SAFE DRIVER. Or maybe I PASSED MY DRIVER’S TEST WITH FLYING COLORS. Or maybe KISS ME — I’M A RE-TESTED DRIVER.
Regardless, a re-tested driver can look in the mirror and say without question: “Other people matter to me. Other people deserve to be protected from accidents. I have done my part, voluntarily. I have done it without kicking, screaming or denying.”
Many mountains need to be moved before voluntary re-testing is required. Rather than wait, I’ve decided to re-take the standard test on my next birthday.
See you in line at the motor vehicle bureau. Kisses optional.
Bob Levey is a national award-winning columnist.