Driving While Elderly

According to Jane Gross, the growing population of elderly drivers is forcing some difficult conversations in families:

Thirty-six percent of adult children polled by the Web site Caring.com and the National Safety Council said that talking to their parents about the need to stop driving would be harder than discussing funeral plans (29 percent) or selling the family home (18 percent).

Though framed as an aid to the elderly themselves, the “car key conversation” is about saving others, too. The discussion reminds me of some empirical work done by Margaret Brinig and colleagues on the “public choice of driving regulations.” Their work

evaluates state driving rules, obtained from laws, regulations, and driver’s manuals, tests, based upon Department of Transportation data, whether the type of laws affects driving and accident rates for those over 64 and suggests a uniform scheme combining self-reporting of driving problems, on-the-road tests of drivers who fall below safe driving standards, and individualized restrictions where these can enable drivers to safely operate vehicles.

In the course of the paper, they mention an alternative, market-based “solution” to the problem.

Not surprisingly, one of the first applications of economics to driver’s licensing of the elderly belongs to Richard Posner. In his Aging and Old Age, Posner notes . . . the increasing factors that make driving difficult for elderly people. Consistent with his general “pragmatic” philosophy, he suggests that insurance markets and the elderly themselves will most efficiently regulate elderly driving. If older people are not compensating their loss of functions well enough with their caution and experience, their insurance rates will increase or they will just be sensible and leave driving to others.

Once again, rising rates of inequality render an already suboptimal approach barely worth mentioning. The market “solution” here will predictably overdeter the poor elderly from driving and underdeter the wealthy elderly. Market “signals” are quite noisy for the poor, and may barely be heard at all by those insulated by enough money. Fortunately Brinig et al. suggest an approach that gets to the root of the problem, rather than complacency in the face of a “solution” that will all-too-often confuse real loss of acuity with mere lack of money. Of course, given Posner’s past failure to account for inequality, his work here is unsurprising.

UPDATE: Very nice response from Scott H. Greenfield Simple Justice:

Financial incentives apply unevenly. We look to external solutions because we have such terrible difficulty dealing with the problem on a personal level. Try telling your mother, who carried you for nine months, who stays up with you at night when you were sick, who bandaged your wounds, that she’s too old to drive anymore.

Similar concerns make the inevitably familial nature of financial decisions about health care a bad matter for purely private resolution.

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