How Do You Take the Car Keys From Your Parents?

Our government punts to family members when it comes to getting hazardous seniors off the roadways

Earlier this week, the Daily News boldly raised an issue that no one, especially not our elected officials, wants to address. New Jersey and Pennsylvania have been tough on teen drivers lately, limiting the number of passengers they can carry, how late they can cruise the streets, and restricting texting (the latter being a great idea but one that seems nearly impossible to enforce). Yet there’s another potentially dangerous group roaming our highways besides young adults and the Pagans motorcycle gang: the elderly. (Mom and Dad, you might want to stop reading here.)

DN’s William Bender revisits a number of local catastrophes caused by AARP-eligible motorists in the past year, from the 85-year-old man who turned the Burger King at 8th and Market streets into a drive-thru, to the 87-year-old woman who drove a few miles on I-95 in the wrong direction. Miraculously, no one was killed in either incident. Others haven’t been so lucky. What’s interesting is that while there have been plenty of studies about the potential for danger with young drivers, there’s little research conducted on older motorists who remain behind the wheel. The reason seems simple: Teenagers don’t have lobbying groups in Washington, and they don’t vote. Kids are easy, silent targets.

They’re also not the only demographic with a questionable driving record. As someone who’s all too familiar with the horrors of our local roads—from the Schuylkill to the New Jersey Turnpike and everything between—I’ve joked that seniors should have their licenses revoked at 65. Of course, that’s mostly to get a rise out of my folks or my family when we’re together. My recently retired mom drives to her local gym, to meet my aunts at the movies, and when she’s feeling brave, into town for a musical at the Walnut Street Theatre. My dad still commutes from South Jersey to Delaware for work every day, and has the gray hair to prove it. Sure, once in a while they forget where a conversation was going or can’t find the TV remote (and hey, so do I). Thankfully they’ve never confused a brake pedal for the gas.

I can sympathize with someone who’s faced with the decision about when and how tell their parents it’s time to hand over their car keys. In most suburbs, where public transportation isn’t right outside your door, that’s practically a prison sentence. The woman who drove against traffic on 95 said that her daughter made the decision to revoke her driving privileges, and anyone who uses that stretch of highway in Delaware County should be thankful that she did. But family shouldn’t be placed in the role of determining anyone’s ability to safely operate a car. If we apply the same logic to seniors as we do to teens—that many of them are, by nature of their age and environmental factors, potential highway hazards that need to be monitored—then mandatory road testing of the elderly makes perfect sense.

Of course, there’s no special interest group that’s challenging state laws aimed at teen drivers as being discriminatory. You can be certain that a proposal for annual testing at age 75 would be met with vocal and legal opposition; in states like New Hampshire, such measures have already been shot down. That’s no reason to avoid the issue, as much of the country is doing now (only 28 states and Washington D.C. address concerns about senior drivers). In a way, the government is afraid to do what it now expects sons and daughters to handle on their own—evaluating whether their loved ones can get behind the wheel safely. “We can’t drag your folks to the DMV once a year,” is the implied message from the gutless elected official. “Good luck sitting your parents down one day and saying you’re taking away their car.” Someday down the road, I’d much rather see my mom and dad pass a standardized test that confirms they’re fit to drive than assume they’re fine, only to realize later, thanks to some avoidable tragedy, that I was wrong.