Theory vs Reality

In April 2021, I submitted five entries to a postcard story (500 words or less) writing contest by Geist magazine. One got short-listed, but not this one. Still, I enjoyed the thinking and writing process, and wanted to share it with you. The picture is the image of the postcard I chose to go with the postcard story. I hope you’ll like it.

If you liked these postcard stories and wanted to see others I had submitted, please click here.

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A Policy Idea for Retesting of Drivers Young and Old

Lady DriverIssues

Elderly drivers occasionally get into accidents due to their degraded physical and mental abilities from age, renewing the call for retesting with renewal of licences, and far more frequently than the general population. Yet, the elderly are the safest age demographic of all drivers (Boston Globe, July 26 2009). Can a policy for retesting be created that would not only address the real risks, but also be fair to the elderly while reducing their rates of accidents along with the overall rate?


Why you should care

Unless you’re never near a road, then this affects you because it is about better road safety ultimately. The odds you’d get hurt by an elderly person driving without the proper physical abilities because s/he had not been tested recently, compared to a younger person by some other reason, is relatively low. You’d be better off worrying about the younger drivers. They have poorer estimates of their true physical and mental abilities, take more risks and end up hurting themselves and others from behind the wheel more often than the elderly. But if you are moving into the seniors age group, and a lot of people are, or have Parents or older relatives you may have to take care of, your or their independence could rest of this. The extension of the policy idea to all drivers means it could affect you as a driver, and your safety whether or not you drive.


What should we do about it

I’d like to get a few things out of the way before I jump into this. First, this is not my definitive answer, but rather a proposal as a start of a conversation for anyone who’d like to join in. Second, I’m proposing a policy that increases the safety of our roads and drivers first, rather than one that’s fair as the first priority. Where I can, I try to find a fair solution, but as you all know, nobody ever said life was fair!

The reason for the call for retesting of elderly drivers as a condition of licence renewal, unlike the automatic process for most of the general public, is because of the nature of some of these accidents involving the elderly. The Boston Globe source above stated a few recent ones in Massachusetts (as of July 2009):

  • A 92-year-old man who killed his wife by backing over her in a parking lot;
  • An 88-year-old woman who allegedly hit and killed a 4-year-old girl in a crosswalk;
  • A 93-year-old man who mistook the gas pedal for the brake and drove through the entrance of a Wal-Mart.

These accidents seem senseless and preventable, although I’m sure younger drivers have backed over people or mistook the pedals to cause harm. There’s just an easy “excuse” to use age and resulting degradation of physical and mental abilities as the cause of these accidents by the elderly. That also makes for a compelling story the media often blows out of proportion. Then there’s the “easy answer” to retest the elderly, possibly every year, to make sure they’re in sufficient health to drive, because the cause was so “easily identifiable”. With younger people, it’s attitude, and that’s not so easily to quantify like an eye examination, so nobody is quick to suggest we do the same for younger people even though they are the biggest threats on the road.

I am not against retesting of older drivers every once in a while. I don’t quantify that because I think it should be a progressive scale of more frequent testing with age and/or medical conditions one has, like poor eye sight. Let’s face it, not all 75 year olds are the same no more than all 25 year olds are the same. And believe me, the insurance industry has enough data for one to create a formula that would be quite fair. I also think conditions like those for some beginner drivers might also be good to put in. This should not be thought of as a barrier to elderly people driving, but rather to allow them to drive the way new drivers are allowed to without incurring greater risks.

What I am against is the retesting of just elder drivers. What I think we should do is also put in conditions for retesting of younger drivers if they commit various offenses related to driving where they are penalized on their insurance. Hey, if the insurance industry deems someone a greater risk after certain events, they most likely are. There’s too much at stake for them to be “wrong” too often. So beyond some level of offense, younger drivers will have to retest to renew their licence, although they might not have to get it renewed any sooner. For example, if on a 5 year cycle, on the second day, I commit an offense serious enough to warrant my retesting upon renewal. Unless I do something else, I won’t have to retest for close to 5 years from now, unlike the elderly where it might be 3 or 2 years. Of course, to be fair, I’d throw in a health weighting factor, too, but that’s not likely to be as big a factor for younger drivers. However, if the offense were serious enough, I might be required to retest before the automatic renewal date or lose my licence.

The threat of retesting and renewed conditions for driving may not seem much as a deterrent, but instead of thinking about it as quickly relearning to pass the test again, think about potential loss of freedom, whether total or limited loss of freedom. All that hard fought for and waited upon personal right could be gone so easily. It’s not jail or probation, but it could seriously get in the way of your everyday life! That, is the magic button!

As for the aforementioned “level of severity”, I can’t quantify that now. I don’t know enough about that topic to be more specific. However, given the data I know exists out there, I’m sure a few good and sensible hardcore statisticians could crunch it to come up with something simple enough to explain to the public. I would highly recommend a flow chart rather than text. If we have to, we’ll fine tune the solution over the years from the initial one proposed that may be a bit off in a few places.

So here’s my proposal summary:

  • Progressively more frequent retesting of older drivers as they age, factoring in their current health status so that there are no automatic renewals beyond 65. Conditions on driving similar to some for new drivers may also apply, like no night driving, or only with a passenger watching over them.
  • Retesting as a condition of licence renewal of drivers who commit offenses above a certain level of severity. Some retesting will be sooner than the regular renewal, pending severity of offense. Some health factors, and possible conditions of driving again, more severe than what may already exist on rather harsh offenses, should also factor into the equation.

I know my suggestion is not “simple”, but you know, problems of the world aren’t often “simple”, and neither are the best solutions. And in this day and age, we have the data, computers and know-how to fine-tune these solutions quite well. One will have to keep group the conditions for retesting into as few categories to explain to the public well, though, and use visual aids with text rather than just make it read like legalese.

Flesch-Kincaid Grade Reading Level: 10.8




Please share your thoughts in the Comments section. Thank you.


I work for the public service in the province of Nova Scotia. However, I do not have anything to do with policy work on anything remotely close to this, and I don’t believe this is a current policy discussion in the government. This is my own thinking put out there to inform and solicit feedback for my own interest in the matter.