As we age, our driving skills inevitably deteriorate. The likelihood of a car crash begins to rise after age 60 and to rise rapidly after age 70. Drivers over 80 are as likely to crash as new drivers in their teens; drivers over 85 are twice as likely to crash as new teenage drivers. Fortunately, many older drivers are responsible enough to self-restrict. They drive less and refrain from driving at night or on high-speed roads. These behaviors show up in the statistics. Along with the post-2005 surge in gasoline prices, they may account for a reassuring decline in the fatalities inflicted by older drivers over the past few years. But unfortunately not all older drivers are responsible. Those who wish to test their luck—and everyone else’s—encounter few restrictions. Whereas teenage drivers are subjected to a testing process and gain driving rights usually in three gradual stages, older drivers in most states are subject only to more frequent eye testing.
States hesitate to test in part for cost reasons: testing drivers in person is expensive. But as important as costs is political fear. Unlike the young, the elderly pay attention to politics. (One study has found that baby boomers are 38 percent more likely than post-boomers to answer correctly basic questions about current events.) Older Americans vote, and they unabashedly vote their interests as a demographic group. It’s almost always easier and safer to shift the costs of an aging society onto other groups: to force the other drivers on I-95 to veer out of the way.
And no, it’s not just about driving. Whether we can ever learn to say no to the elderly is the great political question hanging over all modern societies, in Europe as much as in the U.S., as we face a 21st century of diminished economic opportunity and staggering government debt.