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Then there are the geriatric drivers

By Staff | Jul 9, 2010

With nearly a quarter of the fatal traffic accidents involving teenagers, the state’s liberal licensing laws have come under attack by safety and enforcement organizations. Under present law, children as young as 14 can end up spreading mayhem on the public streets and highways.

Insurance Commissioner Adam Hamm started the debate in 2008 by proposing new restrictions and a graduated licensing scheme for teenage drivers. He was joined in the last session of the Legislature by Rep. Ed Gruchalla, a former highway patrolman, who proposed tightening teenage driving.

The issue of teenage driving has been kept alive since the 2009 session. It is very likely that bills will appear in the Legislature to deal with the issue and it is also highly likely that very little will be done. It runs against our traditional streak against regulating anything, even danger.

While focusing on teenage driving, we have failed to look seriously at the other end of the spectrum the elderly. Since I am now in that category, I have license to discuss the serious problem we have with older people who no longer possess the skill or comprehension to drive anything faster than a lawnmower.

Meting out justice for seniors is no easy matter. Just a few weeks ago, a 92-year-old North Dakota driver crossed the center line and piled into two motorcycles. One cyclist was killed and the other was sent to the hospital. The driver was fined $20. An insightful citizen wrote a letter to a newspaper, pointing out that if the driver had been a teenager, he/she would probably be sitting in jail for vehicular manslaughter.

While it is great to see older people able to function independently, the time comes when they are a threat to themselves and everyone else on the highway. It’s okay if some old people want to go out in a blaze of destruction as long as they are the only ones who go. Unfortunately, they end up killing innocent people who would prefer to stay around a little longer.

Taking the keys away from older people is difficult, too difficult for most family members. With so many dangerous older drivers on the loose, it is obvious that relatives aren’t doing it. And doctors find it difficult to weigh in on the decision. Some have enough good sense to restrict their driving.

If relatives and doctors can’t make the hard decisions, the only remaining solution is retesting. Every one over the age of 70 should be required to take driver competence examinations whenever their licenses come up for renewal. As long as they can pass the exams, they should be able to drive until they are centenarians.

If we can’t stomach the brutality of an examination system, we should at least require drivers over 80 to have one of their vehicle plates state their age so other drivers can be forewarned.

If we are unwilling to pass laws to curb geriatric manslaughter, then we ought to charge the elderly with the same crimes and render the same punishment as we do with teenagers.Spending the later years in prison can’t be any worse than spending early years in prison. One year is as dear as another.

Omdahl is a UND professor emeritus in political science and a former lieutenant governor of North Dakota.

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