In July of 2003 in Santa Monica California an elderly man plowed through the Farmer’s Market on Arizona Avenue killing 10 people and injuring approximately 63 others pedestrians. At the time of the accident Russell Weller was 86 years old and was operating a 1992 Buick LaSabre. It was reported by onlookers that the driver had just made a turn from Fourth Street onto Arizona, when his speed rapidly escalated from 30 to 100 miles per hour. Instead of heading for parked cars, the man drove through the crowd. When the car came to a stop, there was a body pinned underneath it, a body onto of the windshield, and a pair of shoes on the top of the car.
An infant died, a young child died, several adults died, and many were critically injured. Some families were destroyed as a result of this catastrophic freak accident. Onlookers screamed, and cried, as they surveyed the destruction of lives and property strewn in the street. Fruits and flower stand lay demolished in the street among the bodies that were strewn around them. How could this happen?
Russell Weller, the driver of the car, told the police on site that quite possibly he hit the gas instead of the brakes. An onlooker helped the man exit the car, as he did the onlooker realized the man was lucid as he exited with his cane. Other witnesses said the man looked totally confused as to his surroundings. Many onlookers wanted to attack him for the carnage he had caused. But several people came to his defense citing he was an old man and to leave him alone. Alcohol and drug tests ruled out alcohol and prescription drugs.
So what really happened? Was Mr. Weller too old to be driving? Did he really get confused? Could he have been suffering from dementia, which could not have been proven through drug and alcohol testing? Could he have had a stroke at the time of the accident? Was he simply too old to be driving? And when exactly are we too old to drive? Giving up our driver’s license after all for many of us means relinquishing freedom!
Prior to this accident, Russell Weller had been active in the community, a high school tutor, a good citizen and loved family member. He had only one other incident on his record with the DMV where he was accused of having driven off the road. Following the carnage in Santa Monica his license was revoked. In January of 2004 Mr. Weller was charge with 10 counts of vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence.
This would normally carry a penalty of up to 18 years of incarceration. Mr. Weller surrendered to police and pleaded not guilty. November of 2006 a judge determined it was in the best interest of prison authorities and taxpayers that Weller not go to jail. According to the judge, the fact that Mr. Weller suffered from heart disease, the way the courts viewed the situation, his ill health would ultimately become a burden and outrageous cost to the state. He was however ordered to pay more than $100,000.00 in fines and restitution.
This single accident alone sparked a major national debate regarding elderly drivers and the safety risks posed. The outcry was that the elderly should have to be tested periodically to insure they are still safe drivers. Weller had passed his vision and written test when he renewed his license in November 2000. So what does that say with regard to the retesting theory? Is it all about age? When in fact are we too old to drive?
The following feedback was obtained after having interviewed members of the Post World War II Generation, Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Generation Next as to their opinions of when people are actually too old to drive.
Post World War II – “You have to have common sense enough to know when you can no longer operate a vehicle. If you are on medication that impairs your motor skills, you simply must realize for the safety of others, it is time to throw in the towel. There are other means of transportation available, and actually they are not so bad.”
“It’s tough to give up your freedom, but at the same time, you have to recognize your limitations. If you know the possibility exists that you might have a stroke or heart attack, then no – you should not be driving. And personally, I don’t think it’s all about age. There are plenty of young folks that cause mass destruction on the road. It is all about being real with yourself, and asking yourself if you can handle the responsibility of operating a vehicle in your present state of mind and health. I would not want to be responsible for taking another’s life because I was stubborn and wanted to continue to drive.”
Baby Boomers – “Well, since I’m about to join one of the largest generations of the elderly, I have to be honest. I don’t think it is about being too old to drive. I think it is about checking your mental, physical, and emotional capacity to continue to operate machinery. If you have limitations that hamper safely operating a car, then don’t.”
“When are we too old to drive? Simple, when we can no longer operate a car safely, and when our judgment is impaired.”
Generation X – “Well my Grandmother is in her 80’s and she still drives. She drives slowly, but she drives safe. If she doesn’t feel well, she doesn’t drive. She will call one of the grandkids to take her to do her shopping. I guess to answer the question, we are too old to drive when we can no longer feel comfortable that we are going to be safe, and question if others on the road are going to be safe.”
“When are we too old to drive? Humph. Well that’s kind of a loaded question. I don’t think it’s about age, because people of all ages drive irresponsibly. I guess I have to say if your vision, hearing, comprehension are failing, and you have physical limitations that are going to impair your ability to drive safely, then you should stop driving.”
Generation Next – “As long as a person is healthy, has good sight and hearing, and has good judgment and motor skills, then they should be able to continue to drive.”
“We should be able to drive as long as we can drive safely. When you can’t drive a car anymore, take advantage of other transportation. I don’t think it would be so bad to have someone else drive me around.”
Generation Y – “Hmmm people should stop driving around forty or fifty.”
“When you get really old you shouldn’t drive, because old people drive slow.”
Though there is some disparity among generations as to what constitutes old, (wink) it appears the general consensus is that it is all about driving safely and being able to be aware of what we are doing. Once a person has lost the capacity to use cognitive skills at peak performance, physical skills that allow them to operate machinery properly, and has lost sense of judgement, it’s time to cease driving. Driving a vehicle means being responsible for yourself and every other driver on the road. So, what do you think? When are we too old to drive? Are we relinquishing our freedom when we can no longer drive?