Our media and various policy wonks have never ceased to talk about the “boomer generation” as if it were a monolithic phalanx. I suppose that makes sense statistically for targeted advertising, but for other reasons? Well, you know what comes after lies and damned lies.
The most recent bete noir concerning the boomers is the prospect of an aging horde continuing to drive automobiles past their ability to safely do so and thus put themselves and all other drivers and pedestrians in grave peril.
Emily Yoffe, who writes a somewhat edgy agony-aunt column called “Dear Prudence” for Slate, published a column on the magazine, and in last Sunday’s Dallas Morning News. Ms. Yoffe provides a number of anecdotes about elderly persons who have been involved in accidents with sad consequences and presents some statistics that indicate that drivers over 80 years of age are nearly as likely as teenagers to have fatal wrecks. She then goes on to lament how difficult is to persuade or coerce those over a certain age to give up driving. Except for the parade of horribles aspect, Ms. Yoffe is rather balanced and to point out to a real dilemma: How can incapable and thus unsafe elderly drivers be kept off the road?
Actually, that is the wrong question. The right one would merely eliminate the “elderly” description. The answer is rather simple. It is not requiring folks over a certain age to submit to renew their licenses in person, arbitrarily submit to physical examination, or have to take driving tests to renew. It can be modeled on an existing procedure in the law that provides a mechanism to restrain and protect incapacitated or incompetent persons – guardianship.
All states have a legal method for establishing a guardianship and appointing a guardian for persons who have lost the capacity to care for themselves in varying degrees. Here in Texas, and many other states, the procedure is designed to protect the rights of the individual from overreaching relatives, and others who might not appreciate eccentricities many persons have. Establishing a guardianship requires that a court proceeding be commenced, the prospective ward be duly served with notice, that an independent court investigator prepare a report, and that an attorney be appointed specifically to represent the ward’s interest, all before a court can consider declaring the prospective ward incompetent and appointing a guardian. Even then the court is required to use the least restrictive means commensurate with protection of the ward and others. The concept and legal procedure of guardianship (for adults, anyway) is thus based on respect for the rights of individuals, which are to be restricted or abrogated only when it is abundantly clear that one is a danger to himself and others because of an inability to function on the most basic level. Eccentricities are not incapacities, and poor old Aunt Sally or Uncle Henry cannot be adjudicated incompetent because they are liable to spend their money foolishly and not leave any to their survivors.
Driving can be handled in a similar vein. The legislature can provide that the Department of Public Safety (or the equivalent agency in other states) set up a procedure somewhat like this: If a relative, or any person, observes another, of any age, whose ability to operate a motor vehicle is impaired, the observer can submit a sworn statement to the agency stating the facts observed. If the statement on its face rises to a reasonable belief the person is impaired, the agency could further investigate, and if the investigative findings warranted, could convene a tribunal to hear both sides, perhaps order a medical examination and/or a driving test, and then decide whether revocation or restriction of the driver’s license is necessary. The driver affected could have the tribunal’s decision reviewed by a court of law. There already is a somewhat similar procedure in place to determine if a concealed handgun license should be revoked. This procedure would avoid the use of a one size fits all, over inclusive stereotype that a person over a certain age is ipso facto impaired. It would be more cost effective that having every such person submit to a medical examination or driving test, which has been implemented in some states.
This system is not perfect, and will miss some. Some relatives or friends might be reluctant to turn in a person who might be impaired. The perfect, however, is often the enemy of the good. A procedure like the one described would respect individual rights, which should prevail except in the case of a clear and present danger.