Should old people stick to a certain kind of wheels?
Should old people stick to a certain kind of wheels?
Gernot Sittner

-Essay-

MUNICH - The day comes in life when you realize you don’t really need a car anymore, you can take the train, or bus. The problem is: you may not want to.

It’s not as if retirement comes as a surprise, a sudden unexpected stroke of fate. We get a long time, many, many years, to prepare for it. And retirement by no means has to be a terrible thing – it has plenty of good sides.

Pre-retirement, I found myself thinking I was looking forward to not having to face the traffic jams every day when I drive to and from work, and in fact, why bother with a car at all. With the money saved, I could not only buy annual passes for the urban public transportation system but the train as well, and probably even a new bicycle. No more inspections, no more trips to the body shop to have bumps and scratches repaired, no more comparing prices at the pump. A bike doesn’t need winter tires. Not owning a car would mean a new kind of freedom and independence.

But it didn’t work out that way. Breaking old habits is harder than you think. While selling a car is not as constricting or irreversible as turning in a driver’s license, I found myself putting the decision off month after month. There are plenty of good reasons for a retiree to own a car, but now I am expected to schlep garden refuse to the recycling center in a wheelbarrow all of a sudden?

The answer to that question is yes.

After 300,000 kilometers (186,500 miles) my car developed gearbox problems that would have cost too much to make it worthwhile repairing. A buyer was willing to take the car off my hands, and I felt very sad the day it came time to turn the vehicle over to him.

I’ve been getting around by bike, and public transportation, for over a year now. But the question of whether or not to buy another car still preoccupies me. There are so many pros and cons.

The cost of purchase and maintenance aside, there is a school of ambient wisdom out there according to which older persons should not be allowed behind the wheel. Most of my contemporaries don’t see things that way, and according to statistics more than two-thirds of over-65s still have a driver’s license and use it. One third of persons in that age group indulge daily in what the experts refer to as “self-determined mobility.” Over two million Germans between the ages of 75 and 84 own a car. Thanks to changes in demographics and medical progress, the ranks of older car owners and drivers will only rise.

A four-wheeled menace

Yes, but, some folks say: older people don’t see as well, their memory’s going, their reaction time is slower, they’re just not as sharp anymore or as agile – even looking over their shoulder when necessary could pose a problem. In complicated traffic situations – say at a crossroads where determining who has right of way has to happen fast – they could be too slow, or make a mistake. Conclusion: older people behind the wheel pose a threat to other drivers and pedestrians.

Actually, experts don’t see it that way. "Older drivers are not a risk factor," a well-respected accident researcher asserted recently, and indeed older people are less involved than the other age groups in traffic accidents. Over-65s make up 20% (16 million) of the German population. They are the least involved in accidents with casualties, and have relatively few accidents caused by DUIs. On the other hand the statistics also tell us that when they do have an accident, the older they are, the higher the chances that they caused it. In 2010, for example, of accidents caused by drivers over 75, three in four were caused by the older driver.

I don’t find the statistics very helpful in helping me decide whether to buy another car or not. In the Munich metropolitan area where I live, it’s not absolutely necessary, even for hauling garden refuse. How many amenities does one really need, after all, shouldn’t one be cutting down? Etc.

Yet what keeps coming back again and again is that I believe that giving up a car would amount to a kind of capitulation. And I so enjoy the concentration and discipline of driving. Driving for me is a test of fitness.

My decision is my responsibility – as it is my responsibility if I cause an accident involving other people. In Germany, the experts are against mandatory testing of older drivers. They believe the preferable solution is to engage peoples’ own sense of responsibility to get regular check-ups and possibly sign up for one of the many courses given by automobile clubs – no harm in refreshing driving skills, particularly when, if they’re like me, they passed their driver’s license over 50 years ago.

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