As the number of older drivers increases as the population ages, the question arises more often: When should the car keys be taken away to ensure the safety of older drivers -- and others on the road?
When a police cruiser drove up to the Casa del Rio retirement
community in Peoria, Ariz., assistant manager Debra Gauthier wasn't a bit
surprised to see Mr. C, as she calls him, sitting in the back seat. The
93-year-old resident was being brought home by the authorities because he had
parked his car in Phoenix and lost it. And it wasn't the first time he'd had a
memory lapse on the road.
Fearful that Mr. C would crash while driving the next time,
Gauthier and her co-workers made a plan. When the police returned his blue Ford
Taurus, a Casa del Rio staff member parked it far from Mr. C's normal space,
disconnected the battery, and held on to his keys.
Hannah Kalil is 83 years old, and lives by herself in upstate New York. She
has aides who help with her caregiving throughout the day. But the
responsibility of managing her finances, health care -- both mental and
physical -- and long-term living situation falls to one person: her daughter --
and my mother -- Eleanor.
It's almost a full-time job. Making sure my grandmother is happy and not
feeling lonely means daily visits. Her never-ending stream of medical issues
means weekly -- if not...
"But he found it," Gauthier says. "He had it fixed
and started driving again with an extra set of keys." He didn't even
remember that he had lost the car. When she told Mr. C he shouldn't be driving,
he became furious.
The to-drive or not-to-drive question will loom for more and
more American families. In 2000, 1 in 10 drivers was over 70 -- a 36% increase
from 1990, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety administration.
While some older drivers remain competent, others do not. In
2001, people 65 and older made up 16% of the driving age population and
accounted for 16% of fatal vehicle crashes, according to the Insurance
Institute for Highway Safety. By 2030, elderly people will make up 25% of all
drivers and be involved in 25% of fatal accidents, the institute says.
The Legal Approach
Deciding which older drivers are safe on the road and which are
dangerous is no small task. The best way to keep drivers like Mr. C off the
road, some say, are stringent state laws that require more frequent testing of
all older drivers, regardless of their driving records. But others see that
approach as "ageist."
Nonetheless, 13 states require older drivers to renew their
licenses more frequently than younger drivers, according to the Insurance
Institute for Highway Safety. In Illinois, for instance, once drivers reach age
75 they must take a road test every time they renew their license. They must
renew every two years starting at age 81 and every year after age 87.
Other states with special provisions for older drivers include
Arizona, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Missouri,
Montana, New Mexico, and Rhode Island.
The Fix-It Approach
Others suggest a more humanistic approach: helping older
drivers stay on the road whenever possible by correcting physical problems. For
instance, obstacles that once seemed incompatible with driving, such as
cataracts and slow reaction times, now may be overcome.
Older drivers with a cataract, an opaque clouding of the eye's
lens, are more than twice as likely to have been in a crash in recent years
than those without them.