Eighty-six-year-old George Russell Wellers looked like he wouldn’t harm a fly. But when the Santa Monica man got behind the wheel in July 2003, he caused one of the worst pedestrian accidents ever recorded. Wellers became confused between the gas pedal and the brake pedal. Dazed and disoriented, his car ran amok for three blocks, striking pedestrians and eventually stopping in the middle of a farmer’s market. He killed 10 people and injured 63 others. The tenth anniversary of the tragedy was this month. In 2009, he was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 18 years in prison. But while many supported the conviction, others declared that Wellers was himself a victim—of age and infirmity—and should not be criminalized for the fact that his age caused him to make a fatal mistake.
Wellers is, in fact, just one example in the growing problem of dangerous drivers that car accident attorneys and their clients must contend with. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, elderly drivers are responsible for 14 percent of all traffic accident fatalities and 17 percent of all pedestrian fatalities. Carnegie Mellon University and the AAA foundation collaborated on a study that examined traffic data between 1999 and 2004. The data revealed that for drivers between the ages of 75 and 84, there is an average of three deaths for every 100 million miles driven – the same rate as that of teenagers. When drivers are over the age of 84, they are four times more likely to be involved in a fatal accident than inexperienced teenage drivers. These statistics are even more alarming when you consider the swiftly increasing rate of aging baby boomers; the U.S. Census Bureau predicts that by 2030, there will be 73 percent more people over the age of 85, reaching a total of 9.6 million. By that same year, safety analysts predict that senior citizens age 65 and up will be responsible for 25 percent of all fatal motor vehicle accidents.
To combat this growing problem, some states are passing laws to better monitor and restrict seniors’ access to driver’s licenses. However, there is no national standard for elderly drivers, and many feel that the restrictions that do exist are not enough. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the only measure that really works to reduce the number of senior citizens in fatal accidents is requiring them to renew their licenses in person at the DMV. However, only Illinois and New Hampshire have such laws in place. And while most states require an eye exam for license renewal, no test exists to gauge mental capacity and awareness.
Since states do relatively little to prevent seniors who should not be driving from getting behind the wheel, the responsibility falls on spouses, caregivers, adult children, and other relatives. No two people are the same, so in some cases, a 90-year-old could be perfectly capable of driving while a 68-year-old poses a danger on the roads. If your loved one has displayed any of the following signs or symptoms, it may not be safe for him or her to drive:
- Slowed reaction times
- Frequent confusion or disorientation
- Neck pain or stiffness
- Leg pain
- Extremely weak arms
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Parkinson’s disease
- Diminished vision
- Diminished hearing
- Difficulties with problem solving
- Difficulties with memory
- Problems with reflexes or range of motion
If you notice one or more of these characteristics in your elderly loved one, you should talk to them about your concerns. Sometimes, asking for help from doctors, other family members, or friends can be very helpful. In some cases, it may be necessary to take your loved one for an early license renewal and test or to write to the DMV about your concerns. It can be difficult to mention to your loved one that you think it may not be safe for them to drive; it is even more difficult when you take actions that will make them lose their license. For many elderly people, losing the ability to drive is tantamount to losing their freedom and becoming entirely dependent on others. But no matter how difficult it may be, remember that ultimately it is for their own safety and that of others. Keeping your elderly loved one off the road might be hard, but it could save their life.