Deadly mishap shows need for license change

Published 5:00 am Friday, July 18, 2003

An accident Wednesday in California involving a licensed elderlydriver that killed nine, critically injured 12 or 13 others, andmoderately or slightly injured up to 30 others has brought to theforefront an issue that has long troubled me.

I wish I could say this was an isolated incident — and by thesheer volume of death and injuries it was — but this is only oneof a long string of elderly driver-related fatal accidents.

First, let me say that I do believe there are elderly citizensperfectly capable of safely driving their vehicles.

Subscribe to our free email newsletter

Get the latest news sent to your inbox

Unfortunately, there are also a great many who should not be onthe road and pose a great danger to themselves, other drivers andpedestrians.

There is no delicate way to put this. Because of their advancedage, many elderly drivers face additional physical and mentalhardships when compared to the average driver. These hardships canrange anywhere from poor vision or slow reflexes to slower thinkingand poor observation.

Most, I believe, are not aware of their handicaps because theyoccurred slowly over time, and believe their driving is just asgood as it was in years past. Sadly, this is not the case.

As we age, our reflexes become slower and our vision dimmer, andour mental faculties begin to decline, resulting in slowerdecisions and, possibly, poor judgment.

Evidence of this can be seen daily on Mississippi roads when weare confronted by elderly drivers traveling much slower than thespeed limit and many times traveling through stop signs or goingstraight from a turn lane.

I know these traffic violations are not done on purpose. Theytravel slow because that is how they feel comfortable driving.Decreasing observation skills result in running stop signs andother traffic violations. However, these accidental violationscould, and oftentimes do, result in crashes that could kill orinjure someone other than the driver.

I do not propose setting a mandatory age for the permanentexpiration of driver’s licenses, but I do propose the stateestablish more stringent driver’s license testing for those over acertain age, which could be determined by a study.

Over that age, instead of their driver’s license beingautomatically renewed as usual, the driver would have to pass a fewtests to show they are still physically and mentally capable ofsafe driving.

These tests could gauge reflexes and observation, forexample.

Either test would have possibly saved lives in CaliforniaWednesday. The 86-year-old man there said he struck the gas pedalwhile going for the brake and careened at more than 60 mph downthree city blocks packed with market-goers.

Better reflexes could have enabled him to stop faster. Betterobservation would have informed him the street was closed in thefirst place.

We should also consider doing away with automatic renewals andmake these tests mandatory for all drivers. Drivers of all ages canbenefit from refresher tests, after all.

Most of the elderly do not realize the danger they pose tothemselves and others, and it takes family members to point it outto them. My grandparents are dead now, but in their later years myfamily had taken the car keys from each and every one of them atsome point.

That is hard, but it also shows true love because the familyfeels strongly enough about their well-being to protect them frompossibly killing or injuring themselves or others.

Whether through more responsible family members or through a newelderly driver licensing system, this is a life-threateningsituation that should get more scrutiny.

Write to Scott Tynes at P.O. Box 551, Brookhaven, Miss.39602, or send e-mail to