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Perspective

Beware of the 103-year-old driver

Despite a recent report on a decline in fatality rates, the elderly need road tests before they can keep their licenses.

James O’Brien

The 81-year-old came into the Plymouth Police Department to explain that after leaving a wedding the prior week, he’d driven his car into a snowbank. When the officers checked, they confirmed that the man had been at Country Club of Halifax but had exited through the wrong gate and ended up, not in a snowbank, but a sand trap on the golf course.

It was August.

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The travails of older drivers are legion, from relatively harmless ones like the Halifax wedding crasher, to the centenarian in Los Angeles who backed his Cadillac into a crowd of school kids, to the 89-year-old who killed a 4-year-old girl in Stoughton a few years ago.

It was that last accident that caused Beacon Hill to join the majority of other states in doing something, though not much, about policing older drivers. Senator Brian Joyce’s oft-filed bill to require those 85 and above (called “oldest old” by demographers) to take a road and vision test every five years met with only modest success; parts of it were incorporated into the measure banning texting while driving, which was approved in 2010. Beacon Hill cut the renewal period for drivers 75 and older in half, to five years, made them appear in person, and required a vision exam. But an actual driving test was too much for the solons.

This year, Joyce is back, proposing to add a road (or simulated) test to the if-you-can-see-you-can-drive law for those 85 and up. His bill would apply only to the age group in which nearly half suffer from some form of dementia, according to some studies.

Pretty modest stuff, right? Except Congress will pass an assault weapons ban before Massachusetts legislators adopt it.

Joyce agreed action was unlikely, even before the late February release of a study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety that will give our test-phobic legislators cover for their inaction — unless they read the fine print. The report does show that fatality rates for drivers 70 and older are declining, though some of that drop is due to safer cars. But when they zeroed in on the oldest olds, those subject to the Joyce plan, they still found the highest fatality rates for drivers of any age.

So why will legislators reject common sense — and science — for one of the fastest-growing parts of the population yet again? I suspect the answer is older voters, or, more accurately, those who purport to speak for older voters.

Take AARP. The powerhouse group’s mantra has long been that any rules based on age are discriminatory. Joyce described the flier AARP put out last round as “essentially a hit piece” on him.

Historically, AARP’s line has been that older drivers would oppose even modest age-based road-test rules. (Hear that, 12-year-olds? Maybe you should drive, too!) Has AARP’s no-compromise, no-surrender stance softened? It’s hard to tell, since a spokesman advised me that no one from the Massachusetts or the national offices would be available to speak to me on any day that I was available.

Massachusetts is not alone in being lax on this issue. On February 24, the Virginia Senate passed a bill to drop the vision test age to 75, but there’s still no sign of a road-test mandate. In fact, since New Hampshire repealed its road requirement for seniors in 2011, at the behest of an 86-year-old state legislator, Illinois is the only state requiring that those 75 years and older demonstrate that they can still drive safely. But being an outlier shouldn’t stop us.

There is a spectrum of things Beacon Hill could do. At one end of it, we could select an arbitrary cutoff age, after which no one could get a license (as we do, in reverse, for the youngest drivers). At the other end — and here’s the radical idea — we could see whether older drivers can actually drive. But if the Legislature ever summons the strength to protect us from bad old drivers and those drivers from themselves, they will have to ante up.

Through the years, those seniors who have told me they oppose testing rarely cite discrimination. It’s all about independence, the only legitimate argument. So if a license is denied, or if we expect the oldest olds — like the nine 103-year-olds still licensed in Massachusetts — to stop driving on their own, they need affordable and accessible transportation options, like expansion of The Ride, more shuttle services, and encouragement of programs providing volunteer drivers.

Joyce suggests that this whole debate will be moot in 15 or 20 years, thanks to driverless cars. But we don’t have to wait: Who hasn’t seen what seem to be unmanned drones barreling down the highway already? But then, when you draw closer, a terrifying sight appears above the dash — a little tuft of white (or blue-hued) hair atop an elderly driver.

Our only hope is if these “q-tips”, as they are called, unite and demand fair testing themselves. If they can still drive, they have nothing to fear. If they are tested and their license is taken away, then the rest of us will have nothing to fear, either.

BY THE NUMBERS

Age statistics from Massachusetts Department of Transportation

The state’s oldest licensed drivers, as of January 11:
1,965Ages 96-99
94Age 100
48Age 101
21Age 102
9Age 103

Jim Braude is host of Broadside: The News With Jim Braude on NECN and co-host of WGBH’s Boston Public Radio on 89.7 FM. You can follow him on Twitter @jimbraude. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.

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