Are Seniors Being Targeted as Bad Drivers?

Spate of serious Massachusetts accidents spurs legislative proposals that worry some advocacy groups.

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Tougher licensing rules for older drivers are being seriously proposed in Massachusetts following a rash of tragic auto accidents involving older drivers. There is more than a little rush-to-judgment response where senior driving problems are concerned, and it is hardly unique to Massachusetts. Similar scenarios occur around the country from time to time, and when they do, the facts often don't get in the way. I call it ageism but that word needs to be used carefully because there is very little sympathy when an old driver hits and kills a young child, regardless of the statistical rarity of such an event.

[ Take a Road Test of Your Driving Skills] What are the facts? Older drivers are, on balance, much less hazardous to the safety of other drivers and pedestrians than many other drivers, young drivers in particular. They are, as a group, much wiser behind the wheel and more careful about their driving. True. they are involved in proportionately more fatalities but mostly they are at greatest risk to themselves, not others. Older people simply are more at risk of serious injury or death in an accident because of their age and frailty relative to younger drivers. Older drivers certainly have slower reaction times than younger motorists but, again, they usually adjust their driving habits to reflect this reality.

The aggregate safety record of older drivers does not, however, count for much in public opinion when weighed against individual accidents and bizarre stories of poor driving and impaired judgment. One long-time student of the subject has sadly concluded that the public is numb to the continued carnage on our highways attributed to youth and drunkenness. Not so with fatalities caused by older drivers.

Elizabeth Dugan, a gerontologist at the University of Massachusetts Boston, has been active in the recent debates over the need for additional driving rules and is a long-time expert on senior driving, including being the author of "The Driving Dilemma: The Complete Resource Guide for Older Drivers and Their Families." Despite the overall safety record of older drivers, she notes that we all know an older driver whose driving skills worry us and that tends to frame the way we view the issue. Another reality is that smart programs to weed out dangerous older drivers can save lives, even if such drivers pose smaller threats by far than, let's say, teenage and drunk drivers.

In particular, Dugan supports one Massachusetts proposal that would strengthen the state's medical reporting system, under which health professionals can alert authorities to drivers who they feel should be tested to retain their driving privileges. There is no age requirement in the reporting but it's a good bet most referrals will be of older drivers. "I'm a very strong supporter of this bill," Dugan says, noting that research from Missouri, which has adopted such a program, showed that it helped reduce driving fatalities. A Massachusetts proposal that does gives pause to elderly advocates would mandate road and vision tests for any driver 85 years of age or older.

Safe Roads Now!, an advocacy group whose backers include AARP, is arguing in Massachusetts for more rigorous licensing and testing provisions that involve all drivers and not just older people, and which are based on actual driving records, not age. Dugan and other researchers are also looking to the further development of a pilot testing process in Maryland that shows great promise in actually predicting which drivers will become threats behind the wheel.

Until then, senior advocates know they must walk a fine line -- protecting older drivers from unfairly losing one of their greatest freedoms while being sensitive to swings in public sentiment caused by accidents such as those that have occurred in Massachusetts. The response to those accidents may include more than a whiff of ageism but pointing that out will hardly win over hearts and minds.

"Unlike sexism or racism," Dugan muses, "ageism is the one 'ism' where, if you're lucky, you end up being the thing you misjudged or hated." One major venue for ageism, she notes, is the widespread sense that older people are no longer athletic or physically active. Students in one of her classes researched older athletes, including people competing at very high levels. "It was amazing to see the change in their attitudes" as they did the research, she says. "It just blew them away." Dugan says the other major cause of ageism is pretty much anything that has to do with sexual activity among seniors. And she agrees that it often is seniors themselves holding factually incorrect attitudes. "I think you find that older people who have a more negative view of aging also report lower levels of life satisfaction," she notes. "They become prisoners of their own attitudes."

[ See if You May Be a Victim of Ageism]