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 hair.
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.
When Nancy Levitt's mother was first diagnosed with dementia 14 years ago at age 78, the doctor told her she could safely drive to familiar places. But Levitt, 61, who volunteers at UCLA's Center on Aging in Los Angeles, was still nervous. Unexplained nicks and dents started appearing on her mother's car. She forgot where she parked. Levitt tried to discuss driving safety with her mother, but she angrily denied there was a problem. Then, she would forget their talks about driving altogether.
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 problem.
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.)