Get the Old off the Road

By Frum, David | Newsweek, July 9, 2012 | Go to article overview

Get the Old off the Road

Frum, David, Newsweek

Byline: David Frum

They're the worst drivers--and we're too scared to tell them so. If we don't push back, they'll steal our benefits and bankrupt the country.

On a sunny October afternoon nearly two years ago, a disoriented 86-year-old Margaret Lazor maneuvered her Buick Century station wagon through suburban Philadelphia, pulled onto the exit ramp of I-95, and drove in the wrong direction nearly a dozen miles in the passing lane, waving off a driver who tried to catch her attention. Cars swerved out of her way. Four drivers crashed, fortunately none of them fatally.

We live in the YouTube era, and so--inevitably--the incident was captured on video, providing a rare real-time glimpse of behavior that recurs again and again but that usually we read about only after the fact.

Three months after Lazor's wild ride, on Jan. 18, 2011, a 91-year-old man drove seven miles the wrong way on I-95 in Maine. Three days later, an 87-year-old woman, also a Maine resident, repeated the mistake. Again by good luck, nobody was seriously hurt, although at least one oncoming car was damaged when it pulled off the highway to avoid collision.

We'd better be prepared for more such stories, involving relatives, friends, and--over the course of time--ourselves. The number of Americans over 65 is projected to double between 2010 and 2050, to almost 90 million. The population of the oldest, over age 85, will grow even faster: from 5.8 million in 2010 to 19 million by 2050.

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.

Pay It Forward Economics

In 2011 Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan proposed a plan to balance the U.S. federal budget over the next two decades. House Republicans adopted a version of the plan as their budget, and it has since been (nervously) endorsed by Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney.

The essence of the plan? A gigantic off-loading of budget pain from old to young. Medicare and Social Security will be protected exactly as they are for Americans now over age 55. Younger Americans, on the other hand, will find Medicare progressively less generous, with the heaviest burden of adjustment falling on the youngest of all. …

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