Q: I recently had a near-crash involving an older driver who probably shouldn’t have been driving based on his poor vision. Why don’t we require older drivers to take a driver’s test to keep their license?
A: I’m willing to go one further: Why don’t we require everyone to periodically take a driver’s test to keep their license? I know, it’s a great idea, but in our transportation culture, it has some problems.
There’s no debate that as we get older we lose our youthful abilities. My reaction time is slower than when I was 18, and it’ll continue to gradually decline. And like many other people who have lived at least several decades, I need corrective lenses to see clearly.
But if we presume that we drive worse as our bodies incrementally let us down, why are young drivers involved in fatal crashes at double the rate of the rest of us? As we get older, we (hopefully) get wiser. Age is a mitigating factor for crash risk, up to a point. If the universe lets me live long enough, eventually my eyesight, reaction time, and cognitive function will become a liability that can’t be offset with wisdom. But when that time comes is different for us all.
What then, is the age when we should start retesting drivers? We already have driver retesting in Washington, but driver evaluations are not done based on age. They happen upon the request of someone with knowledge about a driver’s ability (or lack thereof). This could be a law enforcement officer, a medical professional or a concerned citizen. If the Department of Licensing has reason to believe a person’s driving ability is affected by a physical or mental impairment, law requires an evaluation.
Health issues aren’t the only reason for poor driving. There’s also ignorance. Those of you who have been driving for 40 or 50 years, think about how much driving has changed. Traffic laws, road engineering, vehicle design, technology; we learned to adapt by making our best guess. Remarkably, most of us choose safety most of the time. We’re piloting multi-ton vehicles at evolutionarily high speeds in close proximity to other humans, and we’ve settled on a system that gives a potential driver one test, when their brain isn’t even fully developed, and then figures they’re good to go for the rest of their lives.
Given the high stakes, it seems reasonable to institute ongoing testing. Imagine though if we started retesting all drivers, say, every 10 years. What happens to a driver who fails the test? It would probably happen a lot; how much do you remember from any training you took 10 years ago? If they lose their license, how do they get to work? We’d need an infrastructure that supports the many people who are temporarily unlicensed while they prep to retake the test.
Until we’re ready to prioritize driving safety over driving convenience (and figure out how to build a system that works with that priority) we’re stuck with what we have. Knowing that there are a few drivers who are unfit to drive or need remedial training should, for the rest of us,renew our personal commitment to driving safely. That could be a self-guided review of traffic rules, or maybe taking a safe-driving class. After driving for 30 years I did that, and it changed my driving. Making our roads safe takes both a collective effort and individual dedication. What one thing might you do?
Doug Dahl writes the weekly “The Wise Drive” column for this newspaper. He is with the state Traffic Safety Commission.