Back in My Day: The need for speed, or lack thereof, for older adults

This is a graphic design of the word “opinion” in a speech bubble. The background is purple and there are various shapes surrounding the speech bubble.

Living off-campus certainly has its perks and downsides, but driving to and from school early in the morning and close to midnight, respectively, has been one of the more interesting perks. With no cars on the road and the cool air outside, I can jam to yet another TWICE song and hightail my merry way at blistering speeds. For legal reasons and the sanity of my mother, I do not speed — most of the time.

However, there’s always the offchance I have to step on the brakes, turn the music down and figure out why the person in front of me is going too damn slow. I sometimes do that thing where I swerve out a bit to see what the hold up is, or simply merge out if I’m able to. More often than not, it’s usually an older driver slowing the pace on a side street or driving below the minimum speed limit in what’s supposed to be the “fast lane” on the freeway. Whether my frequent, unfortunate run-ins with older drivers are purely by chance or reflect the realities of aging remains unknown.

In the grand scheme of things, older drivers can be a real pain in the neck. Sometimes they slow down in the middle of the street or turn without seeing oncoming traffic — they feel like a liability to other drivers. Or, at least, that’s maybe what you and I assume. 

Let me rattle your reality for a bit. Plenty of myths stain older drivers’ reputation on the road. Media portrayals certainly don’t help either. The American Society on Aging lists a handful of myths that challenge your initial perceptions, such as the promised increased safety with fewer older drivers. We’ve grown accustomed to these ageist, false stereotypes.

Families also play this ageist limbo game with their older relatives by threatening their vehicular autonomy on the basis of those very misconceptions. 

Imagine a prized possession got taken away from you — such as a permit or license — and your parents stowed it away. For young people, it removes a part of their independence; for some, their identity. A piece of plastic or paper gives you the privilege to drive a vehicle around at your leisure, at your own time and at your own risk.

However, a tiny voice in your mind always says, “I’ll get it back eventually, right? But, I’m only 18 or 19 or 20 or 21, I can go without it for the meantime.” That’s a valid response. I know my folks will do that to me once they read this article and learn I hit triple digits on the freeway to get home before midnight — again, 100% a joke, Mom. 

Let’s change the story. For the college-aged adults reading this column, fast forward into the future — 50 or 60 years, perhaps. Maybe we will have flying cars; maybe we will have gone all electric and maybe we will have finally fixed the stupid potholes in Los Angeles. Whatever the case, your family decides to confront you about your driving abilities and whether it’s safe to still have you on the road. 

That voice isn’t there anymore. There isn’t a “next time” or “getting it back.” This is the end of the road, driving-wise. The gas tank is empty. I am out of phrases describing driving metaphors. 

Nevertheless, you will have to either rely on a relative or the public transit system to get around — both of which can feel incredibly burdensome. You don’t want to feel like a weight on a relative’s shoulders and become another thing that adds onto their schedule. On the flip side, public transportation may be difficult to navigate: waiting at stops for long periods, standing on the bus if there aren’t enough seats nor polite people to give them up, or paying for various fares.

Removing an older driver’s privilege to commute on their own terms can be a truly life-changing experience. Whether you do it because you love and care for them or you hold that grudge from when they stripped you of your license, that simple act is devastating if done abruptly and without warning or prepared alternatives.

A 2016 systematic review of current literature shows that depressive symptoms doubled in drivers 55 years and older when their driving habits were stopped. The same study also found higher rates of health problems, including “hospitalizations, neurological disorders [and] visual disorders” after driving cessation.

Simply put, it’s not fair, which is an excuse we’ve all probably used a few times in our life. Instead, we must consider alternatives to immediate driving cessation that upholds an individual’s autonomy. As an Angeleno, I can be frank and say I would be incredibly worried about my parents driving around this city — a place that I believe is notorious for “offensive driving,” or pure aggression on the road. 

There isn’t a “one-size fits all” approach, making it more imperative to discuss comfort levels with older relatives. Driving culture plays key roles in that discussion, as we fully know the myths on older drivers. Many older drivers may also give up their keys on their own time, once they understand their presence on the road poses a danger to others. 

In hindsight, older drivers’ minor inconveniences pale in comparison to the trauma and backlash from stripping them of their autonomy. Perhaps one day they will have Bluetooth in self-flying cars, calling us weekly saying, “Back in my day…”

Lois Angelo is a junior writing about the timeless lessons learned from older adults. He is also an associate managing editor at the Daily Trojan. His column, “Back in My Day,” usually runs every other Friday.