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June 23, 2014
Bruce Maiman: Some elderly drivers are just too dangerous

old_man_in_car.JPG(June 23 - By Bruce Maiman, Special to The Bee)

When is someone too old to drive?

The question has resurfaced after a motorcyclist was killed in a head-on collision Friday with a motorist driving the wrong way down Highway 160. The driver, Elwood Nigh of Sacramento, was uninjured. He's 86.

This may not have been a case of age impairment, though Nigh is likely to face vehicular manslaughter charges. According to the California Highway Patrol, Nigh turned left too soon from Richards Boulevard onto Highway 160, immediately realized his mistake, slowed down and hugged the center divider, intending to exit the highway at the next opportunity. The fatal collision occurred at a blind curve in the fast lane.

Still, suspicions arise. We recall George Weller in 2003, plowing through the Santa Monica Promenade, killing 10. He, too, was 86. He told investigators he stepped on the accelerator instead of the brake. Two years ago in Los Angeles, Preston Carter backed over a group of schoolchildren, injuring nine, plus two adults. He was a month shy of his 101st birthday.

Get 'em off the road, some say. That's easier said than done.

It starts with seniors stubbornly refusing to give up the independence a car represents, perhaps in denial about their eroding skills. "It can symbolize losing everything," said Bunni Dybris, a social worker who has been running a Los Angeles-based geriatric care service, LivHome, for 20 years.

"I met someone at a conference who boasted, 'My father is 97 and he still drives,' " Dybris told me. "That was the first thing. Not that he's mentally sharp or playing tennis. This is our world today."

Children face their own emotional challenges: the declining abilities of an aging parent; parents yelling at their adult kids - a common anxiety; or the burden some will feel of becoming that parent's taxi service. Or all three.

Starting at age 70, California motorists must renew their driver's license in person at a DMV office. They take a written test and eye exam. If a DMV employee believes it's necessary - or if a doctor, police officer, relative or even a neighbor requests one - a road test may be administered. Partly, this was instituted with Senate Bill 335, authored by then-Sen. Tom Hayden and enacted in 2000, but it didn't go far enough.

No matter how sharp you are, beginning at age 70 drivers should have to pass a behind-the-wheel test every two years, and after age 80, every year.

The mandatory retirement age for commercial airline pilots is 65. Doctors take continuing medical education courses annually to retain licenses and hospital privileges. If they're in a specialized field, they also must take board exams every 10 years to maintain their certifications. There's a reason why: to reduce the risk to patients of injury or death caused by medical errors.

Yet few such precautions exist for California seniors. You can get behind the wheel without having had your basic competence tested in decades. Most drivers receive their last exposure to driver education and testing in their mid-teens.

Yes, motorists over 70 drive fewer miles than younger ones, but they already account for an outsized proportion of fatalities, insurance figures show. While teens accounted for 8 percent of all motor vehicle fatalities in 2012, seniors were involved in 18 percent of fatal crashes, largely because more 85-year-olds are driving, and their death rate per mile traveled is four times that of teens.

According to the California Highway Patrol, teen drivers were involved in 219 fatal crashes in 2012. Drivers 70 and older were involved in 420.

But try passing tougher restrictions into law. You'll hear howls of protest from a politically powerful demographic - and they vote. How many legislators would risk their jobs to pass any law easily branded as age discrimination?

And that presents another problem. "I met a criminal defense attorney whose niche is defending older people who get their driver's licenses taken away," Dybris said. Might DMV examiners go easy on seniors just to avoid potential litigation?

Even if a "road test law" passes, consider the cost of more DMV examiners having to test the nation's largest demographic, baby boomers. The first wave hit age 65 in 2011. By 2025, some 40 million of them nationwide will be driving.

A vigorous public transit system would help, but few municipalities have them. We don't design suburbs for people; we stupidly design them for people with cars, limiting a senior's options even further.

So it's more than just defiant parents, conflicted children and reluctant lawmakers.

It ultimately comes down to us. Seniors, especially, must take the lead here. It's ironic that the very judgment needed for self-assessment of driving skills is the same judgment needed for being brutally honest about oneself. But safety must be paramount.

Autonomous vehicles may one day provide a solution, but then we'll have a different problem: Who's liable when one gets in an accident?

Bruce Maiman is a former radio host who lives in Rocklin. Contact him at Follow him on Twitter @Maimzini.