License to thrive

July 31, 2006

More than 18.5 million people age 70 or older are licensed to drive in this country. It's a fast-growing population, and that has raised legitimate safety concerns about the effects of aging on driver safety - although, it should also be noted, older drivers are still less likely to be involved in fatal accidents than drivers age 25 or younger. But what happens to an older person who stops driving? New research suggests the consequences can be serious.

In a recently published study, researchers at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine found that seniors who no longer drive (or never did) are more likely to enter nursing homes or assisted-living centers than those who stay behind the wheel. The research, which focused over a 10-year period on more than 1,500 people ages 65 to 84 living in Salisbury on the lower Eastern Shore, suggests that a loss of mobility can be a serious, and perhaps life-shortening, hardship for older Americans.

The study's authors say this doesn't mean that older people should keep driving if they can no longer do so safely. Rather, it underscores the notion that independence - the kind made possible by easy access to transportation - is a prime factor in a senior's quality of life.

It's a familiar problem - the risk that an older person will become a shut-in and not have access to friends, medical care or proper nutrition. Under such circumstances, it's understandable that someone's health would deteriorate. That loss of independence is not only unfortunate but also expensive. The average annual cost of a nursing home stay is about $70,000, by some estimates.

That reality needs to be factored into mass-transit planning. Salisbury and surrounding Wicomico County have only a modest level of bus service. Central Maryland has more, but even around the cities, transit planning doesn't take into account these kinds of health costs.

This is not to suggest that the Maryland Transit Administration is unsympathetic to the elderly. Recent changes to the Hampden Shuttle and the No. 5 line near Reservoir Hill, for instance, considered the need to serve specific senior housing. But state transportation officials have never adequately taken into account the broader social costs of trimming transit spending in a region with a graying population.

That's a mistake. Especially now that we can add senior mobility to the list of reasons why it's smart to spend more money on transit - along with relieving local unemployment, rising energy costs, traffic congestion and pollution. Those are the clear benefits, whether tax dollars bring buses to Salisbury or a new light rail line to Baltimore.

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