Can someone do something about this?

June 14, 2014

If there were a type of incident occurring with increasing and alarming regularity, putting the populace at risk, sometimes causing extensive property damage, and in some cases killing people, you’d want something done about it, right?

One would think so, but there appears to be little urgency to address an elephant in the room known as “senior drivers running into things.”

Nary a week passes, just in our general neck of the woods, that we don’t hear a report of a driver of advanced years plowing into a building, running willy-nilly into other vehicles or wandering the wrong direction, against oncoming traffic, on one of our roads or highways.

A couple of the most recent incidents in our region were truly frightening.

Late last month, a person was killed in Butler County when a 74-year-old woman arriving for an appointment drove her SUV into a hair salon. The crash remains under investigation.

Closer to home, just last weekend, Washington County Clerk of Courts Barbara Gibbs was seriously hurt when an 82-year-old woman lost control of her vehicle, striking Gibbs and knocking her to the ground in the parking lot of a Richeyville church. The driver went on to hit Gibbs’ vehicle and another one before finally coming to a stop. She was charged with careless driving.

In a best-case scenario, when serious problems are recognized, solutions are proposed and acted upon. Take young drivers, for example. In recent years, in the interest of reducing the number of incidents and accidents involving new drivers, the Legislature imposed more stringent requirements for their training and new restrictions on their privileges. Likewise, as it became clear the use of cellphones and similar devices by drivers was becoming a deadly epidemic, the Legislature stepped in and enacted a law against texting and driving. It’s a rather weak and ineffective law, but at least an effort was made.

The issue of what to do about senior citizens who continue driving even though they shouldn’t is pretty much ignored by those in a position to do something about it.

It’s clear from the frequency of accidents such as those noted above that the current model of having family members and physicians as the first and pretty much only line of defense against dangerous senior drivers is simply not working.

Pennsylvania has one of the largest populations of senior citizens in the country. Every one of us, if we are fortunate to live long enough, will reach the point at which our driving skills decline. And there is a point at which that becomes a danger not only to the elderly motorist, but also to everyone sharing the road with them. Whenever it is suggested we institute a program of retesting for drivers past a certain age – and it absolutely is – we hear the cry, “But young drivers are worse.” Of course, it’s to be expected someone who has just received a license, and who perhaps is lacking in the maturity and responsibility department, will be a poor driver. But there’s a major difference between these bad young drivers and old drivers. The vast majority of young motorists are going to become more proficient. Old drivers, in general, will not. And granting a license to someone when he or she is 16 should not confer upon them the inalienable right to drive until they reach the grave.

Typically, three kinds of people run into buildings: drunks, folks being chased by police and the elderly. We have laws to handle the first two groups. We do next to nothing about the hazards posed by the third.

We’re not sure what it might take to get our state lawmakers to wake up and do something on this issue. We have no doubt their desire to get re-elected, and their realization older people are more likely to vote, make them reticent to act. Will it require a 90-year-old plowing into a schoolyard and killing a half dozen children? We wonder if even that would be enough.

Absent any action in the capital, here’s a good guide for senior drivers: If you have to think about which pedal causes the car to accelerate and which one causes it to stop, please give someone your keys.



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