NEXT to drunken drivers, elders involved in automobile accidents seem to attract the most media attention. Demand for rules to limit their driving sometimes follows, but this civic indignation may extend beyond the facts. For example, statistics from the Insurance Information Institute show that in 1986 drivers 65 and over made up 9.8 percent of all drivers, yet that age group had only 7.1 percent of all accidents. In comparison, the 25-and-under age group made up 19.7 percent of the motorists and had 32.9 percent of all accidents.
Why? Generally older drivers are more conservative and more experienced than other age groups. They tend to drive fewer miles, do less night driving, and avoid the rush hours. Also, their accidents are usually minor.
Most older-driver difficulties consist in yielding right of way, turning, changing lanes, and making rapid decisions. When accidents occur, some older drivers police themselves - they stop driving. Others take driving courses, such as one offered by American Association of Retired Persons.
Granted there are still problems with some older drivers. But part of the fault lies with bureaucracy and lack of certain basic licensing practices.
States vary a great deal in the regulations pertaining to age. For example, some states renew licenses by mail at any age, without further examination if no violations have been recorded. Illinois requires a road test for all drivers over 69. Louisiana demands an exam for those above 75.
In California a driving test is required if mental or skill deficiencies are observed or reported. Florida has no discrimination regarding the renewal of auto licenses.
Changes can occur rapidly in oldsters, and some insist they drive as well as anyone else - yet may not be able to. But let's not stigmatize a group for a few.
How can the problem be solved?
Ban the unfit elderly driver from driving, not the fit.
Some insurance companies insist on a fitness certificate before insurance is granted. In some countries, particularly the Netherlands and Britain, compulsory exams are required to get a license.
There does seem to be a need for seniors to obtain some sort of standardized report attesting to their sight, hearing, and physical and mental capabilities.
In addition, Lt. Max Shell of the Florida Highway Patrol suggests the use of a simulator test, such as is given to airplane pilots, to check reaction time of drivers.
Lieutenant Shell says that the normal time for drivers confronted with an emergency situation is three-quarters of a second (to remove the foot from the accelerator and apply the brake). Standards can be set up allowing some leeway.
He concludes that a satisfactory result would make a road test unnecessary. This system could be placed in all examining areas for all ages of applicants. The combination of the fitness certificate and the reaction-time test would facilitate the weeding out of incompetent drivers of every age.
All of us are becoming more and more dependent on our own transportation. For example, Florida has one of the largest percentages of retirees and a relatively poor public transit system. So retirees often need their own wheels.
Why not give the oldsters a break by keeping the incompetents off the road and getting the heat off the rest?