Elderly motorists a fatal danger

By By Anastasia Niedrich

By Anastasia Niedrich

I’ve been saying this for years, and unfortunately, I was proven right with the death of my friend’s brother and niece.

On Monday, May 21, 2007, Don and Gwyndalyn Ostler were killed by an 86-year-old man who drove his car into them while they were walking in a crosswalk, attempting to cross the street at 1300 East near 5300 South in Murray.

The two were pronounced dead at the scene. Don was 29 years old. Gwyndalyn was five.

There are minimum age restrictions on drivers who-as an age group-are too young to demonstrate the requisite mental fitness to operate a motor vehicle in a manner that is safe for them and other drivers.

Why aren’t there maximum age limits for drivers-with that same lack of mental fitness-who are too old to operate a vehicle in that same, safe manner?

Such age limits should exist.

Before you call me an ageist, consider these facts based on analysis of data from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System: Per mile driven, drivers 75 years and older have higher rates of fatal motor vehicle crashes than drivers in all other age groups except teenagers. People 75 years and older cause the highest rate of pedestrian deaths per 100,000 people of any age group. About 50 percent of fatal crashes involving drivers 80 years and older occur at intersections and involve more than one vehicle. This compares with 23 percent among drivers up to age 50.

Whether an individual is 21 years old or 95 years old, if he or she can’t drive safely with the necessary mental fitness and awareness required to not harm other drivers and pedestrians on the road, he or she shouldn’t be driving. It’s that simple.

For such an assertion to be measurable and enforceable, “mental capacity or fitness” needs to be further defined. But I think all drivers can agree on certain skills and levels of awareness that a person should have in order to safely get behind the wheel.

Mental fitness tests should be administered at regular intervals to keep those who are unfit to drive off the roads-for their safety as well as for ours.

For example, the ability to see and recognize that pedestrians are crossing the street in front of you would be one of the skills someone should have before he or she is allowed to start or continue driving.

Honestly, how many of us were totally safe, capable, aware drivers at age 16, or even at age 18? I know I wasn’t. I was involved in an accident the first day I ever drove on my own. I have another family member who was involved in three accidents during the first month he had his license. We were both too young, too inexperienced and I wish that the law had kept us-and others like us-from starting to drive as young as we did.

There should be tougher driving restrictions on all drivers, both young and old. You can argue with assertions like this, but it’s hard to argue with government crash statistics.

If you’re mentally unfit to drive, you shouldn’t be driving. We’re all unique individuals. Some of us are not mentally fit to drive until we’re age 25 and we lose that mental fitness at age 35, while others are fit to drive safely at age 16 and they maintain that mental fitness until they’re 96. For that reason, age should not be the be-all, end-all determining factor for who is allowed to operate a vehicle and who isn’t. However, changing the driving age range to 20 to 70 with mental fitness tests administered yearly after age 70 to keep your driving privileges would improve the safe driving situation overall-and decrease accidents and fatalities, according to statistics.

Will such a system be implemented? Likely not.

It’s unfortunate that we live in such a reactive society, and it will probably take many more deaths than Don’s and Gwyndalyn’s, and much more than this article, to change Utah law to prevent mentally unfit drivers from harming or killing others in the future. But if anyone who agrees with my view or cares about this issue is reading this, think about who you want driving around you.

Collectively, we can convey our societal concern about the correlation between age and mental unfitness to drive safely and something productive might actually happen.

It won’t bring back Don or Gwyndalyn, but maybe we could save others from death by mentally unfit drivers in the future. I’m sure Don and Gwyndalyn could have only hoped for such a result.