An Important Aging Issue

Americans are pretty touchy about personal rights and mostly that's a very commendable attribute. But, freedom should be about the right to do what you want and live your own life as long as you don't do two things: violate the law or infringe upon the peace and security of others. The first requirement seems pretty simple, at least for obvious laws. For instance, you can't rob a bank because you want to exercise your right to buy a new car. But, the second requirement can often quickly wander into very gray areas that are a lot harder to recognize. An example of this is the issue of when the time has come to take away the driver's license of an elderly person who has lost the faculties to drive safely. This question was seriously considered in a Dallas news station's report issued on February 21st.

The report noted that in Texas some 430,000 drivers over the age of 80 are licensed drivers, the oldest being a remarkable 107. Driving is very important to seniors, especially those living alone, because in our spread-out Texas cities and enormous countryside independent mobility is crucial to getting virtually anyplace. As soon as mobility is removed, a person is rendered quickly dependent and isolated. For single seniors, obtaining groceries and medical care, pursuing activities or just going about necessary errands can be seriously compromised or eliminated without a ready means to travel. In some major urban areas there are some forms of mass transit; but, honestly, in Texas we have done an awful job with those. And, for a person in their 80s or 90s, standing around in all sorts of weather to engage in the rigorous business of sorting routes, climbing on and off busses or trains and being careful and safe are pretty daunting tasks. So, denying a senior the right to individual mobility is a very drastic and serious step.

On the other hand, do we really want someone who has dementia, is functionally blind, deaf or otherwise seriously impaired behind the wheel of a two-ton vehicle hurtling along in highway traffic or navigating congested streets in rush hour? There are stop-gap provisions in Texas driver laws which can weed out some problems, but they are few and often ineffective. For instance, you must renew your license periodically and if you fail the renewal test, you will not be issued a new license. But, the reality of this measure is pretty porous. Renewals only occur every several years and until you are 79, they can be renewed by mail, which would be possible if you are in a bed or a wheelchair! After age 79, in order to pass one, you do have to renew in person, but you just have to appear to be reasonably lucid and pass the eye exam with your glasses on. On a good day, even a seriously impaired person can muster the necessary faculties to overcome that low bar.

The Texas DPS counters that after age 85, renewal in person must occur every two years; and, they claim that driver's license clerks are trained to "carefully evaluate an applicant's physical appearance and conduct a basic medical evaluation on every individual who applies for a driver's license." That sounds good when you say it fast, but the reality is vastly less than that, as anyone who has ever entered a DPS field office knows. Usually there is a long line of impatient applicants and the clerks are pressed to keep the line moving. The clerks often engage in banter with each other or troopers in attendance and so the "exams" are typically perfunctory. And, in such an environment, how can even a scrupulous clerk seriously evaluate such things as physical reaction time, peripheral vision, night vision, recall or any of the other important intangibles which are required for safe and conscientious driving? And, this problem is exacerbated by the reluctance of public workers to be accused of discrimination by refusing a license to even a marginally limited person. Therefore, there are family stories after stories about relatives pleading with seniors to give up driving and with clerks not to renew which are routinely ignored until disaster strikes.

At present, Illinois is the only state in the nation which has higher renewal mandates for drivers aged 81 and over. But, advocates for seniors and the powerful AARP lobby are strong opponents of seeing this trend spread. One argument they seem to harp on is that teenage drivers are more dangerous and nobody wants to take their licenses away. But, in Texas, the numbers don't support that. In 2012, while 430,000 drivers aged 80 and over were cruising around, only 76,000 16-year-olds were. So, maybe the time has come to do some re-evaluating. If a centenarian is sharp, there is no reason to remove his or her license. But, if a 75-year-old doesn't know if it's Pittsburg or Tuesday, it needs to happen right now. Of course, it would be unfair to remove impaired seniors' licenses unless and until there are concurrent changes in the transportation infrastructure to allow for equivalent mobility. That would require huge capital, which in today's budget crunches at all levels of government will be hard to come up with. But, this is a systemic problem that will only grow as the gigantic baby-boomer generation continues to age. So, we need to start thinking about the best way to deal with it sooner than later.