You see, I will turn 84 this year, and the license I shall receive by mail in a couple of weeks will be good until I am 92.
My fear is not ageism. Most people of all ages, not just the old and definitely including me, think we are better drivers than we really are. The chance that an 84-year-old man will survive to age 92 is about 1 in 3. While the prospect of death is sobering, it is dying, not death, that is the problem for driving. About 30 percent of 92-year-old men — and an even higher proportion of women over 90 — suffer from dementia.
Even if I do not become demented, I shall likely decline over the next eight years. Though I passed the vision test with ease (wearing my trifocals, to be sure), my night vision will likely diminish, and I may develop other vision problems of which the Department of Motor Vehicles will know nothing. My reflexes will slow — more than they already have. Worsening arthritis will diminish my ability to turn the wheel in an emergency.
Perhaps I will recognize if those or other forms of decline make me a potentially lethal road hazard. If so, maybe I’ll voluntarily hand over the keys. If I don’t, perhaps my wife or kids will take them from me. But part of the loss of mental acuity and physical strength is often a reduced capacity to recognize and admit one’s own diminishing capacities. Even if I realize, deep down, that I have lost a step — or several — my passionate insistence on maintaining every possible ounce of independence might well cause me to deny what I should acknowledge. Driving is part of my independence. Even now, when waiting for a haircut, the first magazine I pick up is Car and Driver if the barbershop has one, and it always does.
I have no complaints about how the DMV handled my application. I provided the necessary paperwork to uniformly efficient and friendly staff. I handed over the renewal application form, which included space for a physician’s signed certification that in his opinion I can still drive safely, smiled for what I vainly hoped would be a less-than-ghastly photograph for the new license and was in an out in less than 15 minutes. So, I should be feeling relieved, right?
No, I’m not. I would be feeling so very much better if the rules required me and others my age, perhaps those a bit younger and certainly those who are older, to come back again in a year or two, not eight. And the renewal, at some point, should require not only that a physician, who has never sat beside me in a car, check a box saying I am fit to drive but also an actual driving test to demonstrate that I really can. I am confident I could pass that test today. I hope I will be able to do so a year or two or five from now. But I’m not entirely sure I will recognize when I can’t or act responsibly on my knowledge. And, fellow Washingtonians, you shouldn’t be sure that I will, either.
In several states the duration of licenses is reduced for those over a certain age, which varies from age 63 in Idaho to age 85 in Texas. New Mexico not only limits the duration of licenses to one year starting at age 75 but requires an eye examination, as well.
I hate age discrimination as much as anyone does, but limits and requirements for driver’s-license renewals after a certain age are not discrimination. They are simple common sense. The D.C. Council should legislate them now.