When George Russell Weller’s 1992 Buick LeSabre barreled through a three-block-long farmer’s market in downtown Santa Monica Wednesday, at least 50 people suffered injuries. At least 10 died and dozens more were injured; as I write 20 are hospitalized sill, five of them in critical condition. Certainly, something went horribly wrong. But, Weller, a mustachioed 88-year-old who walks with a cane and favors golfing attire, hardly seems the sort of person who engages in thrill killing. At worst he behaved in a horribly negligent manner. More likely, some sort of medical or mechanical problem caused his car to get away from him: Witnesses said he was in a trance.
On the tip of many pundits’ tongues, however, was a call to make it harder for people Weller’s age to get driver’s licenses. At least one California newspaper has already called for tighter licensing requirements for senior citizens and more will surely follow in the coming days. Far-left former California state senator Tom Hayden pushed for a bill to make it much harder for elderly people to get driver’s licenses after a 96-year-old with vision problems mowed down a 16-year-old girl in 1999. Thus, California, along with at least eleven other states, already requires people over 70 (even those with perfect driving records) to renew driver’s licenses in person, pass a vision test every year or two, and go through a demeaning street-sign exam.
But there’s no evidence that the elderly make bad drivers. Indeed, nearly all auto-insurance companies reduce rates for drivers over 55. Older people, after all, don’t typically drag race, drive aggressively, or get into many accidents. Motorists between 55 and 70 are actually the safest drivers on the road. Only after age 85 do people get into as many accidents as teenagers. Even for this group, the results may be skewed: In most states, motorists don’t have to report non-injury accidents. A bump that might rattle a 25-year-old but cause no real injury could break an 85-year-old bone. The absolute number of senior citizens involved in accidents has grown significantly (even as auto accidents have fallen elsewhere) but, after adjusting for population growth, numbers of elderly people involved in accidents have remained relatively stable.
The case for making it significantly harder for elderly people to get licenses seems weak in light of the way other drivers get treated. While some states do provide extra tests for people under 18, drivers between 18 and 25 don’t face extra hurdles in getting driver’s licenses in any state that I could find. If any group should face extra hurdles it’s this one: They’re such bad drivers that nearly all rental-car and insurance companies charge them extra while some turn them away altogether. Males 18 to 25, indeed, get into many more accidents as 85-year-olds, overall. Only a few states, likewise, have special rules for 16- and 17-year-old drivers even though they can’t rent cars from any well-known car-rental company. Companies that make profits off of safe drivers, in other words, justifiably want to discriminate against teenage drivers but rarely hassle older drivers at all.
No regulation will ever make it perfectly safe for anybody to drive a two-ton hunk of steel at 65-miles-per-hour. Some older motorists, particularly those with health and vision problems, do warrant extra attention from the government, but driving records and diagnosed medical conditions, not age alone, should help policymakers decide who should get off the road. A handful of tragic deaths, in other words, do not justify revoking the driving privileges that millions of seniors depend on.
— Eli Lehrer is senior editor of The American Enterprise.