My mother at 85 was alert, with good vision and sharp reflexes for her age, but one day she smashed into three parked cars in a supermarket parking lot.
We never found out exactly how it happened - she was not sure, either - but the investigators figured Mom hit the accelerator instead of the brake. When the car didn't slow down she panicked, and pushed down harder on the wrong pedal. This may be what happened to the 86-year-old man who plowed through that California farmers' market.
Mom was lucky, even though she spent two weeks in the hospital with two broken ribs. But we reluctantly concluded that it was time to take Mom's car keys.
This was the hardest thing I ever had to do. She pleaded and cajoled and demanded to keep her car. I was "mean" and "unfeeling" and her gentle voice grew strident. Tears trickled down her cheeks. I think she never felt old until that moment, when I took away the independence provided by the car. I felt like the wicked witch of the West, and the other points of the compass as well.
In the days that followed, we suggested that she take taxis to visit friends and to shop, but she wouldn't do it: "That's not my style." A driver was out of the question because she had no set places she had to go. She was not a lady for "Driving Miss Daisy."
Fortunately she lived in the city and she quickly slipped into the routine of taking the bus, which she hadn't done since high school. She got to know the bus drivers and waved at them as they drove past her on her frequent strolls through the neighborhood. She began to enjoy her new life. But most old people have no convenient public transportation, or shops within walking distance.
Hard as it was on both of us, we made the right decision in Mom's case. But is tragedy like that in Santa Monica reason to take away the car keys of the elderly? I think not. Unless we learn how to play God, foreseeing accidents, that's the wrong lesson to learn.
Age doesn't necessarily prove anything. Slower reflexes or not, senior citizens are much better drivers than, for example, teenagers. They usually drive more slowly. They get honked at a lot, but their slower speed reduces the risk of death and destruction that accompanies speeding tons of metal. The worst risk-takers on the highway are young men between the ages of 18 and 25, but no one suggests taking away their keys, or raising the driving age to 26.
The fatality rate in 2001 for motorists between 16 and 20, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, was more than double that for drivers over 70. The American Association of Retired Persons estimates that drivers 55 and older compose a quarter of the driving population, but have only 18 percent of the accidents. The older the driver, the fewer miles he puts on his car.
As the baby boomers age, the numbers of older drivers will increase. Large majorities of them live in the suburbs or in the countryside without public transportation. Rural and suburban communities must arrange for alternative kinds of transportation for those who are failing in their driving ability; demand can drive public and entrepreneurial innovation.
Preventive remedies for the aging driver abound. Their licenses could be renewed at shorter intervals, with tougher physical tests. At the first signs of diminished alertness, a designated adult in the family should monitor the elderly driver closely for the good of everyone else. They shouldn't drink and drive, but who should? Doctors who prescribe medications for the elderly must make them aware of their influence on driving.
The older citizen who tries to avoid danger is likely to take personal responsibility with considerably more seriousness than a younger person who courts danger through partying and risk.
I like the example of Lord Renton, the 94-year-old "Father of the House of Lords" in London, who volunteered the other day to take his first driving test. He first drove a car in England before 1935, the year a driver's license was first required. He enjoyed a grandfather clause, you might say.
Deciding he owed it to himself and his fellow drivers to submit to a test, he submitted himself to the indignity of taking the test on a small and unfamiliar Ford sedan, not his usual cup of tea. Personal responsibility will out. He succeeded brilliantly. We could expect no less from seniors on this side of the Atlantic.
So let's let Granny drive for as long as she can. Road age is a lot less dangerous than road rage.