"Oh, my God, they're sooooo slow." These words, quoted in a newspaper article, come from a 20-year-old woman in Florida. The subject of her condescending mirth: older drivers. Florida is full of them -- white hairs in big cars, poking along . . . chuckle, chuckle.

But what if the "they" in such a quote were African American postal workers? Sooooo slow!

Or girls in algebra class? Sooooo slow!

Oh, my God. . . . Instead of chuckles there would be outrage and charges of racism and sexism. Where's the outrage at ageism? The statement about older drivers is a sweeping generalization that disparages a whole group of citizens -- reinforcing stereotypes that the old are incompetent, while fueling prejudice against anyone who is not young.

Lawrence H. Summers, the president of Harvard University, nearly lost his job after he crossed the "ism" line with his insensitive remarks about the scientific ability of women.

But the ism of age goes on, unchecked. Geezer-bashing is socially acceptable. What's the harm in making fun of the Doddering Class? Anybody over a certain age is fair game for stereotyping. Chronological diversity is not regarded as part of cultural diversity.

This social myopia is a prescription for demographic tragedy. The country -- indeed, the world -- is aging. Over the next 25 years, an increasing proportion of the population will be "old."

Yet the social virus of ageism is endemic. It harms older Americans by unfairly portraying them with negative characteristics and marginalizing them in society. Many older men and women internalize these negative messages and lose confidence in themselves -- at work, at home, in the community.

Ageism also harms younger people by exacerbating their fears of growing older. The prospect of living in the Medicare years is so laced with images of decline and suffering that no young person wants to go there. Then, too, ageist jokes are a form of denial, a defense against the clock: Hey, if I can laugh at them old folks, then I'm not one of them.

Dream on. Them is us. Society needs a reality check on what it means to grow old. And here's the surprise: The decades after 50 have been transformed into a period of vitality and productivity, thanks to gains in health and longevity. To be sure, there are losses and hardships at this stage. A significant fraction of the older population is frail. The fear of aging is often proxy for the fear of dying, and mortality is ever-present in the lives of older people.

Yet for many, these years are an Indian summer of contentment and personal development -- of exploring new avenues of meaningful activity and significant relationships. They do not fit the ageist stereotypes of decline and incompetence.

Which gets back to older drivers. As a group, they are competent behind the wheel. They have a better safety record than those the age of the woman who was complaining about geezer drivers in Florida. According to statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, crash rates for people over 65 are about 30 per 100,000 licensed drivers. This compares with 119 crashes per 100,000 licensed drivers aged 16 to 24. Young people also have a higher death rate from traffic injuries: About 29 deaths per 1,000 people aged 16 to 24 compared with about 22 deaths per 1,000 people 75 and over.

There are caveats to these studies. Older people drive fewer miles and often tend to limit their driving to circumstances in which they feel confident behind the wheel. The bottom line is that most of them are good drivers.

Yes, there are exceptions. The problem with ageism is that the sooooo slow stereotype becomes the prism through which the public views all older drivers. Stereotypes don't allow for individual variance. Possible solutions to the transportation needs of older Americans get lost in the yes/no rhetoric about whether Grandpop should have the keys to the car.

This is no laughing matter. Older drivers deserve more respect -- and more options for getting around besides a car. Meanwhile, it would be nice if some of those 20-year-old drivers would slow down.


Are you in transition? Have you found your what-next? Are your primary relationships changing? Respond by e-mail to mytime@washpost.com. To send U.S. mail, see the address on Page F2; mark the envelope "My Time."