Many tell us what to think. I ask my readers to be skeptical. Question me and others.

Life and politics

Regulate or communicate?

Several days ago in Chicago we had a dramatic accident caused by an 84 year old driver who lost his bearings and drove onto the Lake Shore promenade, killing one person and injuring others. It was the latest in a series and most likely not the last fatal accident caused by a disoriented elderly driver.

What can we do to minimize the chances of accidents like this not happening too often? Or, should we do anything beyond what has been done already? For many of us it is clear that the state needs to toughen the testing and licensing of elderly drivers. It would be simple to revoke all licenses after a certain age, but it would not be right. So some postulate that the frequency of license renewals ought be increased after age of 70, and applicants should be subject to additional screening – perhaps even required to submit a statement from their doctors.

Asking senior citizens to visit the state driving license facility more often sounds reasonable but requesting a statement from a doctor needs a little more attention. Everyone applying or renewing a driving license is asked a few routine questions, among them about health conditions that might impair their driving ability. Should it mean that as long as I am not 70, the state office should take my word, but my elderly neighbor needs to bring a doctor’s certificate that he or she is not lying? I believe that elderly persons who are aware of their driving limitations do not drive, in the same way that people of any age do not drive after having a few drinks, taking certain medicine, being sleep deprived or having any other condition limiting their driving ability. Therefore requesting a statement from a doctor may not bring much improvement, because – as it seems to be the case in the last accident – there were no known conditions prohibiting this elderly man from having a driving license. However, I suspect that close friends and family members noticed and ignored some early warnings indicating what might happen and what unfortunately did.

For many of us, if there is a problem, we instinctively expect the government to fix it. Don’t we pay taxes? The government accomplishes things by regulating – but it is an illusion that by making the law tougher or expanding its reach we can solve every problem. Behind the regulative approach is the latent belief that people by nature tend to misbehave. It is quite opposite, we are social creatures and, as long as we understand what is good for our community, we will try to comply. Civilization was born this way, codified rules came later.

It is ironic that in the era of communication we lose our faith in the power of communicating. For a surprising many of us it is difficult to imagine that an elderly person might decide to stop driving after being told by a friend, family member, doctor, auto mechanic or whoever else, that it is the right time to do so now. Or, after reading an educational brochure on this subject.

Let us assume that the state will toughen the testing and licensing of elderly drivers and create additional paperwork harassing (let’s make sure that we use the right word) our aging drivers a bit. Upon seeing behind the wheel someone who should not be driving, I can wash my hands: I should not intervene, the state approved this person’s driving license based on the doctor’s testimony. I gave them the power to do so – and I bought myself the comfort of not getting involved, even if my conscience calls for action.

So many areas have to be regulated by law, and codes have to be very detailed to be efficient. But we cannot codify every aspect of our society – sometimes communication may be much more effective than regulation. When we are well informed about public safety, when we understand and accept the reasoning behind certain limitations most of us make a small contribution to the common good cause. And, the sum of these tiny efforts can be much greater than the effect of the smartest regulation issued by the best secretary of state we can imagine.

Unfortunately, this approach does not bring instant results, requires all of us to get involved and from its outset assumes that not all the members of the community will be forced to comply. Would it not be nicer to use the power of the state government and bring a decisive change with one stroke of the legislative pen? Or, would we be buying ourselves the illusion of having had fixed something?

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