Food For Thought

Driving Privileges? 

Should senior citizens be required to pass road tests?

by John E. Bonfadini, Ed.D.,
Contributing Columnist
Professor Emeritus, George Mason University

John E. Bonfadini
John E. Bonfadini

One of the privileges we all cherish is driving. In one of last yearís articles I emphasized the need to increase the minimum age for obtaining a driverís license. I also said that at some point in the future I should discuss senior citizens and their related driving issues. The recent number of major accidents involving seniors seems to warrant some additional thought on this topic by all of us.

When to give someone the privilege to drive and when to take it away can be very contentious topics. I had my driverís license suspended for two weeks because I told the truth. At the age of 22 I fell asleep on the way home from a school-sponsored activity and hit my principalís (and neighborís) parked car. I was trying to get home to go fishing with Dad. Mr. Christina, my principal, and I didnít see the need to call the police since the damage wasnít that extensive and no one was injured. The next day I filed the required accident report stating that I fell asleep and hit a parked car. A few months later I received a summons to appear in traffic court. The judge said, ďSince this is your first offense Iím only suspending your license for two weeks for reckless driving.Ē I asked him, ďYour Honor, since no police officer was involved, what would you do if Iíd written that I was blinded by another carís lights ó would the punishment be the same?Ē He said, ďI must act according to your written statement,Ē to which I responded, ďDid you ever hear of George Washington and the cherry tree?Ē I guess getting a break for telling the truth only applies to future presidents, and the judge didnít think I was in that category.

The two weeks without a license created many hardships so I can understand how someone might feel if their license to drive is permanently revoked. As senior citizens get older, they must realize that losing their privilege to drive could become a reality. Itís not easy to know when grandpa or grandma must turn in the keys to the family Buick. Statistics show that older drivers have fewer accidents and therefore are considered safer drivers. Seniors being classified as safe drivers doesnít mean that they are better drivers than young adults. Younger drivers can control a car better than seniors at all speeds. Their eyesight, hearing, reaction time, strength, and many other factors make them better drivers. You donít see many senior citizens driving in the Indy 500. Seniorsí use of good logic and caution is what makes them safer drivers. They just donít put themselves in dangerous situations by driving excessively fast or late at night, which translates into fewer major accidents.

At some age seniors begin to lose the logic advantage. They also decline physically, and at some point a senior may become a potentially dangerous driver. I use Interstate 95 on my monthly trips to Richmond. Trucks arenít permitted in the left lane so many cautious seniors take advantage of this law and drive in the left lane. They may be going the speed limit (65) but certainly arenít passing anyone. Other drivers must pass on the right, creating a dangerous situation. The fear of high speeds can be a cause of accidents just as speed itself is a factor. You can drive too slowly.

The debate about when to give a teenager the privilege to drive involves a short period of time between the ages of 16 to 18. Deciding an age or age range when a senior must give up the privilege to drive is very difficult. California tried to pass legislation requiring people over 75 to take road tests. Studies show a significant increase in senior accidents at this age. Senior-citizen groups protested and the bill was killed. I believe that such a law is reasonable. The health of a senior over 75 can change instantly causing a significant drop in driving ability. The AARP favors better testing, rather than age limits. I donít believe it should be left up to the children to determine when to take the keys from dad.

Modern medical science and technology have increased our life expectancy; therefore, more seniors will be on the road in future years. Many of these seniors will be driving with known serious medical problems. Statistics show that drivers over the age of 85 are just as dangerous as those in the 16-to-19 age group, and have higher fatality rates. My wifeís uncle Andy just had his license revoked at the age of 96. In a recent conversation with Uncle Andy he mentioned how sometimes his foot would miss the brake and hit the gas. I guess we as a family were just fortunate that Uncle Andy didnít have an accident like the one in Santa Monica, California, where an 86-year-old driver killed 10 people and injured many more when he drove into a farmerís market. He never did find the brakes.

Statistics show that 16 percent of drivers are over 65. In three months I will be part of that number. In the next 30 years one in four drivers will be over 65. These facts will require state legislatures to pass laws that will protect senior citizens and others. Senior citizens have gained significant political power in recent decades. Seniors vote and members of governing bodies understand this. It is a legislative responsibility to pass laws that provide reasonable assurances to the general public that senior citizens will not be permitted to drive unless they meet certain medical guidelines.

Legislators have spent a lot of time on the SOLs topic in education. Now itís time to spend some brainpower on another SOL topic ... Standards of Living. We have become a society with an inordinate amount of freedom. Jump in the car and weíre off to worlds unknown to our parents. They had to take the train or bus. Now thatís an idea. Why not improve bus and train service for seniors who canít drive? Lack of money is probably the reason, but remember seniors now have voting power and money usually follows the vote. Grandma and I now take the Amtrak Auto Train to Florida to see the grandkids, much better than driving all the way. I think discussing the use of trains and other mass transit could be a good future article.


Whatís Your View?

Obviously, there are at least two sides to every issue. Do you have a different view? This column is meant to provoke thought, so keep sending comments. Each one is read with the utmost interest. Send e-mail to:, or send written responses to the editor.  Mail will be forwarded to the author.




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