Tom and Ray propose ongoing testing for senior drivers.

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Jul 01, 2001

Dear Tom and Ray:

Recently, you answered a question from Heidi, whose 75-year-old mother had developed physical problems that kept her from driving a manual transmission. Your advice (to trade for a similar car with an automatic transmission) made sound financial and mechanical sense, but perhaps you had a different obligation to Heidi and her 75-year-old mother.

I am concerned, because people at this age often have poorer reaction times, impaired vision and hearing, and are typically not strong or agile enough to make the same emergency maneuvers they made 20 years ago. We already know that Heidi's mother has developed physical problems. If her arm strength keeps her from shifting gears, will it keep her from steering the car properly? If it's her legs that prevent her from using the clutch, might they get in the way of her braking? I don't know the answer to these questions, but shouldn't somebody be asking them? I don't want to stereotype older drivers or drivers with disabilities. But driving does require certain mental and physical skills.

I know that everyone considers driving to be the ultimate expression of personal freedom. The thought of giving up one's car is abhorrent to many. However, there comes a time when one must evaluate whether the freedom of driving might come at too high a cost in terms of personal safety and the safety of others. -- Al

TOM: You are absolutely, 100 percent right, Al. We have systems in place to force young people to demonstrate skills and judgment before we give them a license. But we have no systems in place on the other end of spectrum -- when skills or judgment might be in decline.

RAY: Like Social Security, it's a "third rail" issue. Touch it, and you're toast. That's why not one significant politician that we know of, not one major national organization that we know of (AARP, AAA, ASPCA, NBA), will get anywhere near this issue. But, as usual, we're going to wade right into the electrified water here.

TOM: We think there should be some kind of ongoing evaluation for all licensed drivers. Most states have determined an age (16) when, developmentally, most kids are apt to be ready to drive. And then they test individually to see which ones are and which ones aren't.

RAY: So the states should pick an age on the other end -- I don't know what it would be, but my guess is that it would be around 65 or 70 -- when motor and visual skills are likely to be declining, and then they should test individually so that people are not discriminated against as an age group. The testing would be different from a new-driver's test -- you'd be looking at basic physical abilities and reaction times rather than knowledge of how to operate a car. And the testing should probably continue every five years or so after a person reaches that age.

TOM: I know we're going to get a raft of flak on this, but we can take it. Most people in their 70s and 80s know in their hearts that they're not quite as quick as they used to be. And I'm sure most of them still have everything it takes to drive a car, and that's great. For the safety of everybody on the road, what we want to do is weed out the few who really can't see anymore, really can't steer anymore, really can't judge distances anymore and really can't react fast enough in an emergency.

RAY: So how 'bout it, guys? Which of you politicians and organizations has the courage to help us call for a fair plan that respects the individuality of seniors AND protects everyone from drivers whose skills have seriously declined? You can write to us in care of this newspaper or e-mail us from the Car Talk section of We look forward to your responses.

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