The light turns red and traffic stops. A mother eases her
baby's stroller off the curb and starts across. Without warning, a stopped car
roars to life and leaps into the intersection, missing her infant by a
The shaken mother confronts the driver, a woman in her 80s, who
is crying and in shock. The elderly woman had glanced at the green light
signaling the cross traffic and processed it as a green light in her direction.
Fortunately, this incident did not shatter the lives of mother and baby -- but
it might have acted as a wakeup call for that driver. Time to consider hanging
up the car keys.
In Nora Ephron's best-selling book, I Feel Bad About My Neck, she
laments the sorry state of her 60-something neck: "Our faces are lies and our
necks are the truth. You have to cut open a redwood tree to see how old it is,
but you wouldn't have to if it had a neck," she writes.
"Every so often I read a book about age, and whoever's writing it says it's
great to be old. It's great to be wise and sage and mellow; it's great to be at
the point where you understand just what matters in life. I...
Obviously, there are poor drivers in all age groups. Drivers 55
and over actually are less likely to be involved in crashes, according to the
National Center for Statistics and Analysis, and are also less likely to be
driving drunk. But, as the years roll by, the 70-and-up group is second only to
the 16-20 set in traffic deaths.
Contrary to popular opinion, cognitive impairments such as
Alzheimer's, and declining eyesight are less to blame than diseases such
diabetes, Parkinson's, and heart disease. Physical stiffness from arthritis or
osteoporosis can impair the ability to work the pedals. Older people also take
a lot of medications, some of which can impair driving. All of this is
significant because states that have passed or are considering retesting or
relicensing based on age usually target vision, which can be the least of the
David B. Carr, MD, a geriatrician and associate professor of
medicine at Washington University in St. Louis, says "drive or not to
drive" decisions might more cost-effectively be made on a case-by-case
basis. Even people with early stages of Alzheimer's, whose orientation and
other faculties beside memory are not affected, can drive safely. "We have
to decide if screening is worth it. Even if you take away a person's license,
they may continue to drive without it." (In one case, a man who kept
hitting a tree next to his driveway refused to surrender his license and
instead chopped down the tree.)