Mass. Sen. Brian Joyce: Retest senior drivers to reduce risk

Sen. Brian A. Joyce

It’s a common occurrence to pick up the paper and read a story about a senior driver missing a stop sign or mistaking the gas for the brake when attempting to stop.

While researching this issue last year, I came across three stories in one day about accidents involving elderly drivers in the local paper. Just last month in Orleans, an 82-year-old woman drove right into the town’s own Council on Aging building when the driver hit the accelerator instead of the brake. Luckily, no one was hurt in that incident; unfortunately, that is not always the case.

Once you turn 16 and pass a few tests, you can be issued a license to drive for life. This license is renewable for the rest of your life unless revoked for traffic violations or other such legal matters. It can be renewed through a visit to your local DMV or, more easily, by mail or online. After you pass your road test to earn your license, your actual driving abilities will never again determine your right to drive.

But the simple truth is that driving abilities change over time. We know that young drivers are sometimes dangerous. They lack practice and experience behind the wheel, and we have legislated accordingly. We restrict their driving to certain hours of the day until they are 18. We do not allow them to drive most passengers without adult supervision for a period of six months. We hold them to stricter rules and punishments for speeding.

However, here in Massachusetts, we have so far neglected to address the other segment of at-risk drivers.

The number of Americans aged 85 and older is expected to increase dramatically in the next 20 years. Currently, there are 5.6 million in this age bracket, and in 2030 it is projected that there will be 9.6 million.

Studies conclusively find that, physically and biologically, senior drivers are unable to respond to sudden changes on the road as quickly as other drivers. Eyesight worsens with age, and many medical conditions that come with age limit the ability to drive either through physical changes or because of side effects from medication. Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease, diabetes, and strokes all become more likely as we age. These can not only affect reflexes, reaction time, and muscle control, but also increase the risk of becoming confused or disoriented while driving.

A recent University of Hawaii study found that seniors aged 60 through 88 had a significantly higher crash ratio than drivers 20 through 59 when tested on driving simulators. Senior drivers are less likely than other drivers to be in crashes involving high speeds or alcohol, but they are more likely to be involved in crashes at intersections where they miss a stop sign or turn left in front of oncoming traffic.

Teenagers and drivers over age 70 are three times more likely than middle-aged drivers to be at fault in an accident. Crash rates drop off after age 24 but begin to rise again after age 75, increasing markedly after age 80. Most alarmingly, the per mile fatality rate for drivers over 85 is nearly three times that of drivers ages 16- to 20-years-old. Requiring seniors to appear in person to renew their licenses has been scientifically proven to reduce the rate of fatal crashes involving elderly drivers.

With these statistics and facts in mind, I am proposing legislation that would require drivers over age 85 to pass a vision test and a road test each time they renew their licenses. This would ensure that drivers who are no longer capable of responding to sudden changes or making wise driving decisions do not remain on the roads past the point at which it becomes unsafe. It also takes the difficult decision of when and if to stop driving out of the hands of the driver’s family.

Adult children often struggle with the dilemma posed by a parent who has become an unsafe driver. For many seniors, driving is a means of independence. To lose their car keys would make them dependent on others for transportation, access to basic necessities like food, and the ability to socialize.

For many adult children, taking away the keys of the person who taught them how to drive is a difficult proposition. My siblings and I struggled terribly with the question of when and if to ask our father to stop driving. The issue of how long a parent should drive can result in terrible fights and create rifts and sore feelings between family members. In many families, the conversation never happens, sometimes with tragic consequences.

Forty-seven states currently have some sort of legislation to ensure that drivers seeking license renewals are capable of driving. Seniors and teenagers are the two most dangerous groups of drivers on the road. We have already dealt with restrictions on inexperienced drivers. It is now time to deal with the problems posed by elderly drivers in order to make our roads as safe as possible.

Sen. Brian A. Joyce (D-Milton) represents the Norfolk, Bristol and Plymouth District in the Massachusetts Senate.