I have been a licensed driver for almost 50 years. With the exception of a few speeding tickets, I have never been found in violation of a motor vehicle law. I am in excellent health, take few medications and wear glasses only when I read. But now, for the sole reason that I’m turning 70, the state of California wants to rethink its permission to let me drive.
As a resident of California, I must appear in person at the state Department of Motor Vehicles, where I will be given a vision test, have my hearing and mental acuity judged by what I’m sure is a highly skilled DMV clerk, and be given a written exam to test my knowledge of the state’s motor vehicle laws.
I am dutifully studying a 107-page DMV manual right now, albeit scratching my head over why it doesn’t even mention my car’s parking assist beep or rear cameras when it talks about how to back out of places. Oh right, the manual hasn’t been updated this century yet.
But I have a bigger problem than the manual being out-of-date and the state thinking it’s a good use of my time to study it. I want to know how testing me just because I am turning 70 is even remotely fair. Failure to see someone as an individual and making broad, sweeping and often inaccurate generalizations about people based on their age is ageism, pure and simple.
Why shouldn’t the trigger point for a re-evaluation of your driving ability be something applicable to all drivers of all ages — like if you were involved in an accident, or got your second speeding ticket in a month?
And before anyone starts with the “old people are bad drivers” nonsense, just know that the Insurance Institute for Highway Safeway — the nonprofit expert record-keeper of such things — begs to disagree. It says it isn’t older drivers who crash their cars at an alarming rate; nope, it’s young drivers. (While drivers age 70 and older do have higher crash rates per mile traveled than middle-aged drivers, the IIHS found the rates were not as high as those of young drivers.)
I have two young adult drivers on my insurance policy and can attest that it is them — not me — causing my premiums to skyrocket.
California, of course, isn’t alone in its ageist blindness when it comes to drivers. Driving laws vary by state and as such, lack uniformity as they relate to aging drivers. In Texas, they don’t require a vision check until a driver reaches age 79 and they continue to issue licenses good for eight years until the driver’s 85th birthday, after which it must be renewed every two years.
I’m not honestly challenging that as we age, vision can become impaired and reflexes may slow. But I’m also cognitive of this reality: Older drivers tend to self-regulate. When it becomes uncomfortable to drive at night, we stop doing it. When the freeways become terrifying, we just don’t use them anymore.
Retirement generally gives us the flex time to avoid the crowds, and so we do. Plus ride-sharing services aren’t just for the young. Even now, we Uber out to dinner and back, which also allows us to enjoy wine with our meal.
But I do want to keep driving and I will need my license to do that. And so I am aware that the consequences of not passing my birthday test are steep: The DMV can refuse to renew my license, order me not to drive at night, to stay off the freeways, and forbid me to drive in congested areas.
And because Big Brother likes to have his way with older people, anyone — an adult child, a neighbor, the woman who yelled at me for taking what she thought was her rightful parking spot at the mall on Black Friday — can report me at any time and have the DMV investigate my driving. Um, is it too late to say “sorry”?
Ann Brenoff was a staff writer and columnist for the Los Angeles Times, where she won a shared Pulitzer for coverage of the Northridge Earthquake. Most recently, she was a senior writer and columnist for HuffPost based in Los Angeles.