A Practical Peacemaker Ponders . . .

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Elderly Drivers and Public Safety

7/19/2009

I work at a branch library across the street from a neighborhood shopping mall. Some of the mall’s parking spaces directly face the front of businesses. Last week, a driver occupying a space in front of a restaurant put his transmission into drive instead of reverse. The vehicle jumped the curb, smashed the restaurant’s windows, and plowed through the seating area all the way to the back wall (see photo). Amazingly, no one was hurt; the accident happened right after the restaurant opened. The driver, a man in his 80’s, was described in a news report as “dazed, but not injured,” while the restaurant sustained significant damage.

About five years ago, a similar accident happened at my workplace. An elderly driver parked in a handicapped space mistakenly put the transmission in drive and breached a brick wall of the library. In this case there were no large windows, so the car was stopped by its impact with the wall. On the interior, tall bookshelves were forcefully knocked down, but as no one happened to be walking by that section at the moment, there were no injuries.

About two years ago, in an incident I witnessed shortly after it happened, an elderly driver turned left too sharply and collided with a bus bench. Fortunately, all three occupants of the car walked away, although I heard later that the driver was injured. No one happened to be sitting on or standing near the bench. Both the car and the bench were bent out of shape.

Such accidents happen more and more frequently, it seems, not because elderly drivers are getting less competent, but because the elderly demographic is the fastest growing of all age groups. Every year there are more people over 80, many of whom may still be driving. In addition to news reports, I hear friends and co-workers express concern about their elderly parents or neighbors driving when they cannot do so safely.

A major part of the problem is that so many of our cities have been designed to be car-dependent, and may have no adequate public transportation. Seniors who cannot drive are thus completely isolated, unable to obtain food and other needed items or socialize with friends. To remain independent, seniors may feel they must drive even when they have physical impairments.

I bring this up not because I have a solution, but because together we may be able to create a more satisfactory way to meet seniors’ needs for transportation while protecting public safety. Part of being practical peacemakers is to build community wherever we can so that we are all safer and get our needs met. Any ideas?