Elder Law Newsletter
Automobile Safety and Elderly Drivers
It is undeniable that the coordination of many skills is required for safe driving. Many of the physical and mental changes that come with aging diminish such skills. Aging commonly results in one or more of the following impairments:
- Diminished reflex response
- Drowsiness resulting from medication
- Impaired vision and hearing
- Loss of muscle strength and flexibility
- Reduction in the ability to concentrate
- Low tolerance for alcohol
Elder Driving Legislation
In 2003, 21 states had varying requirements for older drivers with regard to license renewals. Some states merely require vision tests or more frequent license renewals. Others require older drivers to undergo road tests. States also vary with regard to what age triggers the additional requirements.
- Illinois and New Hampshire impose mandatory road tests for those 75 and older
- Nevada drivers 70 and older must submit a medical report with license renewal
- A California bill sought to require road tests for drivers 75 and older, but the bill was defeated, largely as a result of the efforts of senior citizen groups
In 2001, 16% of all drivers were 65 years of age and older, and it is estimated that a quarter of all drivers will be over 65 by the year 2030. There has long been a debate between senior citizen rights groups and highway safety advocates as to whether seniors should be barred from driving upon reaching a certain age.
Santa Monica Man Kills 10, Injures 63
A tragic July 2003 accident in Santa Monica, California added new prominence to the debate when an 86-year-old driver mistakenly stepped on the gas instead of the brake as he traveled through a busy farmers market. Ten people were killed and several others were injured. On August 3, 2004, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) concluded that although the accident was the result of driver error, the city of Santa Monica was also partially at fault. Specifically, the NTSB stated that the accident may have been less severe had removable concrete barricades been in place.
Highway safety advocates claim that if the driver had been subject to more stringent testing and monitoring of his capacity to drive, the accident could have been averted. Such groups often advocate that seniors over a certain age should be required to prove their ability to drive and undergo more frequent testing, beyond that of other drivers. Elder advocacy groups such as the AARP counter that the right to drive a car is essential for a senior’s independence, health and well-being. They argue that continuing to drive should be based upon skills, not simply age.
Event Data Recorders Recommended by NTSB
The NTSB has used the Santa Monica case to recommend to the government that event data recorders (EDRs), also known as “black boxes,” should be used in automobiles, similar to those used in aircrafts. When the NTSB sought to investigate the Santa Monica accident, the California Highway Patrol (CHP) allegedly refused to allow it to conduct all tests and investigations it deemed necessary. The NTSB stated that had the driver’s vehicle been equipped with a black box, the conduct of the CHP would have been less consequential.
Since 1958, EDRs have been used in aircrafts to allow investigators to determine the cause of airplane accidents. In 2004, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimated that approximately 15% of all road vehicles currently have an EDR. In addition, an estimated 65% to 90% of vehicles have some type of recording ability. Although some argue that such devices may infringe on driver privacy, the Chair of the NTSB stated in August 2004 that the NTSB recommends that EDRs record only the 10 seconds preceding an accident and constantly erase old data. Information to be recorded would not include video images or conversations; rather, they would only record information in connection to engine speed, brakes, throttle and other objective data.
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