Unsafe at any age

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February 17, 2008

THANK YOU for the Feb. 10 story about bad driving ("Accidents waiting to happen: Thousands of the state's drivers have histories of multiple crashes," City & Region). Cars kill about 43,000 people nationwide every year, making them far more dangerous than guns. We have strict laws regulating who we permit to own a firearm, yet we continue to allow bad drivers back on the streets.

The criminal driving record of William Snelbaker of Tewksbury is sickening. Yet the Registry of Motor Vehicles reissued his license five times. Each time he caused more damage and injury; six of his incidents occurred in my town. Why should my family and I have to share the road with him?

Lawmakers and the Registry must work together to take these people off the road permanently. At the very least, these bad drivers should have to pay the full cost of their behavior. It is an outrage that good drivers are endangered by these people, and then are forced to subsidize their reckless actions.


IF THE repeat offenders described in "Accidents waiting to happen" were operators of heavy machinery in an industrial setting, they would be transferred to other duties, sent to safety classes, and forced to reapply for certification, or would just be fired. No one sees operating industrial machinery as a right; it's a job responsibility. But our culture has become so dependent upon the automobile for daily life that we do largely see the operation of a piece of machinery weighing thousands of pounds with hundreds of horsepower as a right.

Until we acknowledge that driving is a privilege, we will never have policies that address the problems you report. Driving tests should be more rigorous, drivers should be periodically retested, and we shouldn't wait for multiple serious accidents before revoking licenses from people who can no longer drive safely.

The flip side of this, however, is that we need to focus more resources on public transportation and developing pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly communities, so that people who can't drive anymore are not deprived of their honest right to mobility and a productive life. Improving the practicality of alternative forms of transportation has long-term environmental and economic benefits for everyone.


THE RECENT crash, in which an 8-year-old girl was hit outside her school by an elderly driver on Super Tuesday, triggered an avalanche of discussion and media attention about the need for the RMV to institute mandatory age-based testing. Familiar questions arise: What is the proper age for retesting? What tests reliably discriminate safe from unsafe drivers, and who will absorb costs for widespread testing? Elizabeth Dugan wrestles with some of these issues in her Feb. 13 op-ed "The driving dilemma," but does not specifically mention the critical role that the primary care physician can play.

Taking a thorough history for patients should include questions about driving safety, especially for older drivers. Integrating a few key questions about driving into the yearly physical must be as central as questions about cardiovascular health. If physicians are concerned, they can refer patients to a specialized program for further assessment. Or, they can rely on the established doctor-patient relationship to counsel any patient to stop driving if continued driving is dangerous. There are steps we can take as we wait for the RMV to sort out a response at the governmental level.

The writer is coordinator of the DriveWise Program at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.

I AM dismayed and concerned that the current conversations about ending driving privileges for elders never includes a discussion about what transportation services will be provided for elders ("Danger: elderly driver ahead," Editorial, Feb. 14). Many seniors are reluctant to give up driving because driving equals independence. Think of all the places we need to get to in our beloved cars. Who will drive the elders to the store, place of worship, hairdresser, social settings, and medical appointments?

As the director of the Brookline Council on Aging, I am committed to providing seniors with transportation options. The battle for funding, however, is relentless. Each transportation program runs with a deficit, and what we currently are able to provide is not enough to replace one's car.

The policy conversation about ending driving is essential, but it needs to include funding and discussions about transportation options. This is highly unlikely in a society that is so threatened by the other "T" word, taxes, and that cannot even fund basic healthcare.


BECAUSE OF the tragic accident on Election Day, Beacon Hill is abuzz about a proposed law that would require drivers 85 or older to take a written and road test when renewing their license. For many seniors, their automobile is a necessity, and they would be severely affected without a license.

In last Sunday's story, "Accidents waiting to happen," RMV statistics were given on who was involved in the most accidents in Massachusetts over the past five and a half years. Drivers older than 75 were involved in 3.4 percent of accidents, while those 25 and younger were involved in nearly 29 percent. Let's not rush out and pass a law to test seniors because it makes a good sound bite on TV, just as we would not advocate for a mandatory age of 26 to get a driver's license.


MY DAUGHTER, Anna, was killed last year by an elderly driver with debilitating medical problems, and I deeply hope your Feb. 7 Short Fuse editorial, "Elderly drivers: Trust but verify," will do some good. But I doubt it. Elders vote, legislators know it, so bills to test older drivers get nowhere.

For the same reason, prosecutors go easy on these cases. And convictions for motor vehicle homicide don't send elders to jail; the woman who killed my daughter was sentenced to confinement in the comfort of her home.

It will apparently take many more tragedies before our government takes action to stop the elderly carnage on our streets.


RE "THE driving dilemma": A simple and fair solution would be to require every driver to take the driver's test periodically. There are many people out there, young, middle-aged, and old, who have no business driving a car.

Daily I am astounded by the complete disregard - or is it ignorance? - of even the most basic of driving rules, such as coming to a complete standstill at a stop sign and using turn signals. Regularly reminding all drivers of the basic rules would significantly reduce accidents as well as incidents of road rage.


IF PEOPLE want seniors to stop driving, I would suggest that zoning laws be changed. How much senior housing is near shopping centers? I would like to see housing next to superstores where the elderly could buy food and clothes, or within walking distance as long as there are benches at which to rest on the way home. Many seniors are without family or friends, and transportation through councils on aging would not be able to handle the need. And since many seniors must live on less than $1,000 a month, taxis are out of the question.


I AM 72, so I may have some authority in supporting the call for mandatory testing of elderly drivers.

While I have maintained my mental acuity, I have relinquished my license to practice medicine in any state where I had one. I did not want to risk discovering my declining competence by committing a medical error. I do continue to drive, and I hope that I will know when to stop driving. Yet who can guarantee that I will be able to make this judgment when the time comes?

It would help if getting a driving test was made more convenient.

It would also help encourage people not to drive if our towns kept sidewalks clear of snow and ice and free of obstructions such as exposed roots and overgrown border shrubs and trees.


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