The National Register of Safe Senior Drivers

In the early years of the Independent Transportation Network, I drove a fiery, 85- pound woman named Dorothy. She learned about ITN while recovering from a broken arm suffered in an automobile accident on Forest Avenue, one of Portland’s busiest streets. From historic photographs and post cards, I know Forest Avenue once had many trees. Now it is a forest of traffic signals, crosswalks and cars.

"My doctor wants me to get back on the horse," she said, as I drove her to an appointment. "He wants me to drive again."

"What did you tell him?" I asked.

"I'm thinking about it," she said.

At the time, I was traveling to Washington every year for the annual meeting of the Transportation Research Board. There, researchers talked about older people, especially women, stopping driving too soon. The big push was to keep older people "driving safer, longer."

Dorothy decided to stop driving. "There are researchers in Washington who will say you have stopped too soon," I told her.

"How old are they?" she asked, and before I could reply, she added, "They don't understand."

When you picture this tiny lady, don't imagine bird bones and white linen skin. Think vertical posture, impeccable dress, clear high voice. Think general of armies, and wife whose husband came down with polio the day after their wedding. Dorothy was the family driver her entire life, the one who drove all over the United States before there was an interstate highway system.

I continue asking myself what they don't understand in Washington. How did Dorothy find the balance between successful aging and denial? She loved her freedom and independence, but she knew when freedom became responsibility.

Across this country, there are hundreds of thousands of older people who stop driving every year. Sometimes they have help with their decision, from family doctors, adult children, spouses, even occupational therapists. But rarely are they properly thanked or acknowledged, and sometimes, they are even told they’re stopping too soon.

We need a National Register of Safe Senior Drivers, a way to properly thank older people who stop driving when they are ready and because they are confident enough to feel whole whether or not they are driving a car. 

There are precedents for policies that acknowledge behavior, including:

  • The National Register of Historic Places [TITLE I; Section 101 (16 U.S.C. 470a); (a) (1) (A)], created through the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 to preserve our built environment;
  • The President’s Volunteer Service Award to thank and honor Americans who, by their demonstrated commitment and example, inspire others to engage in volunteer service; and
  • The President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition most recently known as the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports until President Barack Obama authorized the name change and expanded the mission of the Council to include "nutrition" in the Executive Order signed in June 2010.

I tried to suggest the National Register of Safe Senior Drivers to our National Highway Traffic Safety Administration but I was told we only have a national register for unsafe drivers. 

It is time for positive thinking. It is time to think of people as whole whether or not they drive. It is time for much better alternative transportation for older Americans. It is time to come together as a country to help and support older people who limit or stop driving because of age related changes. It is not only time to listen and respect their opinion, it is time to say thank you for keeping us all safe, and may I offer you a ride?


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