By State Senator Bob Smith (D-17th District)
In an age of astonishing medical advances and a heightened awareness of healthy living habits, many of our senior citizens are living longer, healthier, and more active lives. As beneficial as this is for the quality of life for these individuals and their families, it does present some new problems that we as a society as a whole must contend with. Namely, a more active senior lifestyle leads to more people driving later in life.
Recent statistics indicate that the numbers of seniors between the ages of 75 and 84 driving have increased by 33 percent since 1992 to 314,000 active drivers. As the “baby boom” generation gets older, this number is expected to double by 2030.
The recent tragedy in California, where an 86 year old man accidentally killed 10 pedestrians and injured many more as he drove through a crowded farmer’s market illustrates the public policy dilemma that these demographics present. Corresponding to the increasing number of elderly drivers, the New Jersey State Police reported that the rate of seniors involved in, injured in, or dying in an accident has increased from 22.5 percent of drivers in 1995 to 26.3 percent in 1999. Additionally, older drivers are more likely to experience severe medical complications and fatalities from involvement in an accident, whether they are at fault or not.
It is an unfortunate fact of life that as people get older, their sensory abilities and reaction times diminish. Some people have proposed that the solution to this problem is to prohibit divers over a certain age to renew their licenses. I believe this draconian measure would be unnecessarily harsh and contrary to the American values of freedom and individual liberty.
Yet, clearly, the state has a responsibility to ensure that our roads are safe to drive on for drivers of all ages. New Jersey lags behind many other states in this regard. Some of the programs that have been implemented around the nation include vision testing for license renewal, mandatory medical exams, limited drivers licenses for seniors, reduced renewal periods, and incentives for seniors to participate in driver improvement courses. I was surprised to learn that even the laws that we already have on the books, such as the statutory requirement for all drivers to have vision tests every 10 years, have not been implemented by the DMV!
This is a situation that cannot be allowed to continue. The realities of an aging driving population are already catching up to us. I have recently introduced legislation that would begin to address these problems. S-2202 first requires that the New Jersey Department of Transportation to formulate a comprehensive action plan to assess the transportation needs of senior citizens. This plan will develop strategies to promote senior’s safety and well being while driving on New Jersey’s roadways. Secondly, it would establish “Senior Citizens Safe Driving Health Centers” and provide seniors with a 10 percent premium reduction on their automobile insurance as an incentive to encourage seniors to participate in the program. These centers would not only monitor their physical and mental health as it relates to driving ability, but also equip seniors with the tools and information they need to compensate for their changing capacities. They would be funded by an $8.00 surcharge on all fines for driving offenses.
The comprehensive solution should not be punitive to the elderly, rather the goal is to help elders voluntarily, with dignity, professionalism, and privacy help themselves to drive longer. I hope to see this important legislation taken up by the legislature in the fall. New Jersey must be proactive in ensuring that the roadways are safe for drivers of all ages so that we can all enjoy a longer, happier, and more active quality of life.
Bob Smith is a State Senator representing Franklin Township, Highland Park, Milltown, New Brunswick, North Brunswick, and Piscataway Township. He is a member of the Senate Environment and Judiciary Committees and has served as a member of the legislature since 1986.