If you talk to policy makers and younger people about what issues impacting older Americans are of greatest concern, you will get a range of answers. Health care will be at the top of the list for many, particularly in the era of COVID-19. Long-term care will be mentioned by others, and a certain segment of people will immediately bring up property taxes.
For many of those over 80 still living independently there is another issue occupying the top spot on the agenda, however. That concern is the desire to continue to drive.
How we as a society should regulate older drivers is a delicate topic most elected officials would prefer to avoid. It hovers off the radar screen of public policy until a tragedy causes an outcry – think back to the 2003 incident when an 86-year-old plowed into a farmers’ market in Santa Monica, Calif., killing 10 pedestrians.
Calls for new laws to ensure individuals over a certain age still had the ability to operate a vehicle came quickly after that event, but the end result was no significant changes were made.
Advocates for older drivers applaud this inaction. They point to statistics which show seniors are safer drivers than younger people and claim that age alone cannot indicate one’s ability to drive.
But while drivers over the age of 60 are involved in fewer accidents than younger drivers, the crash rate increases significantly for those 80 and above, and older drivers in general are more likely to die in a wreck.
Nevertheless, states are reluctant to impose new requirements on older people seeking to renew their drivers’ licenses. Eye exams are not mandatory for license renewals in Pennsylvania and road re-testing seldom occurs.
The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation has approached the issue with a carrot rather than a stick, mandating an insurance discount for older drivers who take a drivers’ safety course.
State law requires health care workers to report individuals no longer fit to drive to PennDOT. But it is a role many doctors take on reluctantly. In the end, it is left to individuals and families to determine when an older driver should give up their car keys. And the result is often a difficult conversation which may escalate into a full-blown family dispute.
What is it about driving a motor vehicle that becomes so important for older people? The need for mobility. Public transportation fills this role in certain areas, usually more highly populated urban zones where bus and train service are frequent.
But public transportation is at best poor and often non-existent in rural and suburban areas of Pennsylvania, which means cars become a lifeline for doctors’ appointments, shopping, and seeing other people.
Driving also enables older Pennsylvanians to avoid isolation, a condition exacerbated for many seniors since the outbreak of COVID-19. Isolation as a critical factor in both physical and mental health for older individuals. It is why giving up the car keys is often the event which results in someone transferring from living independently to another type of housing arrangement.
Is the desire to ensure individuals can continue to live independently a reason to allow older drivers to operate vehicles despite physical and/or mental limitations? Safety and common sense dictate the answer to that question must be no.
Many people have stories of how they were in a car with a grandparent or parent who may have narrowly avoided an accident because of an error of judgement or because they “just didn’t see” another vehicle.
Although traffic fatalities have been declining in recent years, they suddenly jumped significantly in 2020. Transportation experts have not identified a specific cause for this increase (my armchair analysis is an increase in aggressive, defiant driving matching the political mood), but older drivers may be at greater risk to both themselves and to others in this environment.
The true answer to the dilemma of whether older drivers should remain behind the wheel is to make it easier for them to avoid the need to drive. Better public transportation would be a big start, but innovation and infrastructure improvements are other answers.
Senior-friendly ride-sharing services, more neighborhood amenities, the potential for driverless cars – all offer alternatives that can help Pennsylvania’s growing older population avoid isolation. Action by public officials to implement these ideas is critical as the Commonwealth’s population ages.
Funding these improvements will better for the safety of all Pennsylvanians. And It will help to reduce the frequency of assertions like that made by a 85-year-old in Western Pennsylvania suffering from macular degeneration, who stated she could continue to drive to church on Sundays because “I’ve been driving there for 50 years and I don’t need to see to know the way.”
Ray E. Landis writes about the issues that affect older Pennsylvanians. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Readers may follow him on Twitter @RELandis.