Old Age and Driving Skills

It’s one of those sad facts of life that ageing is inevitable. Being philosophical about it – it’s going to happen so you might as well celebrate it. The question is how society should celebrate ageing. People who rely on driving to get them around while working, continue to need their vehicles when they retire. Let’s face it. In most US towns and cities, few people walk. Everyone drives. Fifty years ago, not many seniors drove around because life expectancy was a lot lower than it is today. Now more people own cars and, with more leisure time and better health, go out and about on the roads. This creates an interesting dilemma for states. Let’s take Massachusetts as an example. Back in 1977, the legislature decided to grant seniors a reward for living so long. Regardless of their driving records, everyone over the age of 65 was given a 25% discount on their insurance premiums. This encouraged the car culture. Seniors were thought safer drivers, so it was alright to let them drive rather than walk around. The price tab was picked up by all the other drivers. The cost of the discount was spread across the premiums for all the other insured groups.

So how has this worked out? All the statistics from 1977 to date prove the initial assumption. Drivers in the age range 65 to 74 have fewer accidents than any other group on the road. This is due to three factors: they tend to drive more slowly, they have more experience than everyone else and they tend to drive at off-peak times when the danger is less. Thus, that group deserves a discount. Whether it should be 25% is not the point. There is considerable social benefit in continuing to encourage mobility among seniors. They go out and spend money in the community. They stay fit and healthy and are less of a burden on the health care services. But drivers aged 75 and over lose their edge. The body is slowing down. Reflexes and eyesight are not what they were. Their claims record is second only to the age group up to 25. This is sparking a debate about whether the discount should be removed for the oldest drivers.

Across the US, the issue is simply stated. Should there be regular testing of a driver’s skills? More importantly, should premiums be set according to the quality of driving? The technology exists to instal a monitoring and recording system in everyone’s vehicle. People of any age could be asked to go through tests of vision, reflexes and cognitive skills as a condition of retaining their licenses. We could reward all the safe drivers with discounts, increase the premiums for the bad drivers and take the dangerous drivers off the road. Or is this an invasion of privacy too far? Which is more important? That people should be judged as individuals when it comes to their auto insurance, or that everyone’s privacy is protected and all the safe drivers subsidize the bad drivers? Massachusetts is discussing a full-scale testing program for seniors over 75 and reducing the discount to the others. At a time when family budgets are under pressure, do we really want to be increasing auto insurance premiums for seniors on a fixed pension?