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Last week's accident in Santa Monica Calif., in which an 86-year-old driver plowed into a crowded farmers market, killing 10 people, raises the question of whether there should be a designated age when older drivers cease driving.

The driver, Russell Weller, told police he may have hit the gas pedal instead of the brake when his vehicle struck the market.

As a result of this horrible tragedy, some people are calling for tougher laws that require older drivers to show they are capable of operating a vehicle. Others are pointing out that older drivers are safer than teens and are less likely to drive drunk.

While efforts must be made to find out who is safe to drive, a mandatory age in which the car keys are removed from an older person does not make sense. Some drivers at age 85 or above are quite capable of operating a motor vehicle.

Families can do their loved ones and the public a favor by assessing how an older driver is doing. Sons and daughters should ride with Mom and Dad to monitor their skills. If the older driver is not always seeing stop signs or is collecting dents in the Chevy in parking lots, the kids may have to intervene and say that the time for driving is over.

The DMV also could do its part, requiring that an evaluation be done of the driver beginning at age 76 (60 years after their 16th birthday — the typical age when a person starts to drive). The DMV could either conduct an evaluation at its office or require that a doctor submit a statement indicating that the motorist appears to be physically and mentally fit to drive. Evaluations of older drivers could continue at age 80 and every four years thereafter.

The older person may have his performance as a driver affected by a number of factors, including decreases in attention span, an inability to see well at night or in the rain, or a slowing down of reaction time.

The public needs protection, as the family members of the people killed or injured in Santa Monica will attest. But there's little reason to pull an older person's driver's license just because he or she has reached the age of 80 or so.

As Cheryl Mattheis of AARP suggests, "People should be able to drive as long as they can drive safely and effectively."

That's a principle that has applied well in the past and should continue to work well in the future.


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