Massachusetts Elderly Traffic & Driving Accidents: Time For A New Law

As the Boston Globe has reported, recent high-profile accidents in the Boston area caused by elderly drivers, has raised a lot of discussion about the subject of elderly drivers in this state. Seven people were recently injured in Plymouth after a car driven by a 73-year-old woman jumped a curb and ran into a crowd gathered at a war memorial. It was the woman’s third accident since turning 70, authorities said. In Danvers, a 93-year-old man recently drove his car into the entrance of a Wal-Mart, injuring six people, after he mistook the gas pedal for the brake. These incidents have caused a lot of people to re-think the idea that elderly drivers have a right to drive ‘just like anybody else.’

In my view as a Massachusetts criminal defense attorney as well as a Massachusetts personal injury attorney, that idea is plainly ridiculous. Simple deductive reasoning can expose this, if more people took the time to actually think about a problem as serious as this, before spouting out unfounded and unjustified opinions. Try to defeat this reasoning: Every state in the United States, including Massachusetts, legislates that persons under a certain age – usually but not always age 16 – are unqualified to operate a motor vehicle. Unqualified in what respect? According to almost all states, persons under age 16 lack the mental, emotional and developmental skills necessary to operate two tons of glass and steel on the public roads. Wisely and logically, we require that such persons be of a certain age or older before they can apply for a driver’s license and operate a motor vehicle on the public roads. That makes sense; it always has.

Yet on the extreme other end of the spectrum – when persons have reached an age that I think all reasonable people could logically conclude disqualifies them from operating a motor vehicle – we dare not say so. Why? Two reasons: 1) Because senior citizens have the right to vote – minors do not. (Hence, legislators in any state don’t care what minors think, but pay scientifically close attention to what elderly voters think. And 2) The numbers of those elderly voters are growing every day. The U.S. Census Bureau projects there will be 9.6 million people aged 85 and older by 2030, up 73% from today. Don’t think every elected state legislator and governor doesn’t have those numbers emblazoned in their minds.

Want visceral proof of this? Not one state has an upper age limit on drivers.

The political result? Barely anything is done, and seniors well into their 80’s and 90’s are behind the wheel in Massachusetts and across the country. In many cases, these unqualified drivers, who in their upper 80’s (and beyond) simply cannot physically possess the visual acuity or responsive motor skills needed to safely operate a motor vehicle, are just as dangerous as drunk drivers. That may sound severe, but it’s true. Road safety analysts predict that by 2030, when all baby boomers are at least 65, they will be responsible for 25% of all fatal crashes. For comparison, in 2005, 11% of fatal crashes involved drivers that old.

The aging of our population has resulted in more and more elders clinging to the independence that cars give them, but losing their ability to operate those vehicles, causing more accidents. Many of these accidents are fatal. Would the person who cares to be maimed or killed next please raise their hand?

Debates over how to deal with the growing problem of elderly drivers are resonating in statehouses across the nation. No single approach has developed, but Texas has proposed a measure that could lead to more frequent vision tests and behind-the-wheel exams for drivers 79 and older. As a recent piece by USA Today made clear, the only measure scientifically proven to lower the rate of fatal crashes involving elderly drivers is forcing seniors to appear at motor vehicle departments in person to renew their licenses. This has been documented by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS), citing a 1995 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA.)

Safety and health specialists are especially concerned about drivers 85 and older, who, federal crash statistics show, are involved in three fatal accidents a day. And that’s where, notwithstanding the fact that I am a Massachusetts criminal defense lawyer and conscious of civil liberties, I draw the line. In my view, seniors from 79 to 85 should be required by Massachusetts law to be examined in person at an RMV, for the visual and motor skills necessary to operate a motor vehicle in Massachusetts. After reaching age 85, it should be deemed illegal to operate a motor vehicle upon a public road in Massachusetts. While I believe that the state legislature should enact such a law and that violation of such a law should be a crime, I do not believe that the penalty should incorporate jail time. Rather, there should be an escalating series of fines, from a first offense fine of perhaps $500, to several thousand dollars for multiple offenses.

Massachusetts public safety officials are fond of slogans: “Don’t Drink and Drive – Stay Alive”; Click It or Ticket.” (Seat belts.) My solution to the elderly driver problem: “It’s The Law: If You’re Over 85, You Can’t Drive.” Persons over the age of 85 should be denied drivers licenses in Massachusetts. And for those who disagree, I’ll repeat my question: Would the person who cares to be maimed or killed next on the road, please raise their hand?