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Should the Elderly Retest to Hold a Driver’s License?

Updated: May 20, 2024 08:44
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A disturbing trend has some people wondering whether reexamination may be necessary to hold a driver’s license past a certain age.

On March 16th in West Portal, 78-year-old Mary Fong Lau sped east up Ulloa Street. 

Her SUV barrelled past Wawona towards Lenox Way, where a family of four stood waiting for a bus to the zoo. She crossed the painted yellow lines and train tracks embedded in the road and veered straight into them. The impact threw the youngest victim from his stroller. He landed fifty feet away. SF Emergency services evacuated him and his mother, 38-year-old Matilde Moncada Ramos Pinto, to a nearby hospital. 

The three-month-old and his mother died the next morning. Forty-year-old father and husband Diego Cardoso de Oliveira, as well as son and brother Joaquim (1 year old), died at the scene.

SFPD booked Lau for three counts of felony vehicular manslaughter and “felony reckless driving causing bodily injury.” Read that again. Language is important. Police only booked Lau. Booking an offender doesn’t charge them for their crime(s). That’s up to the court. Just 48 hours after the incident, SF Police released Lau from custody. 

Eight weeks later, district attorneys have yet to levy charges against her.

A familiar tragedy

Last August a young mother and father were pushing their daughter’s stroller across the chaotic intersection of 4th and King. Obeying the crosswalk sign, they had no warning when 71-year-old Karen Cartagena drove into them. The collision hurled the couple’s four-year-old daughter from her stroller. Paramedics rushed her father to the hospital in critical condition. The girl died at the scene. The sight was so traumatic, the responding officer took the following day off work. 

SFPD booked Ms. Cartagena for vehicular manslaughter. San Francisco residents responded in outrage to Cartagena’s plea bargain, lowering her charge from felony to misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter. Her sentencing came this past April: two years probation, four hundred hours of community service, and a mandatory driver’s education course. “She is beyond remorseful,” her attorney Greg Mendez told ABC7 Bay Area News. “Her life is forever changed.” 

The lives of those she killed are forever over.

A dangerous precedent

“I believe there is a dangerous precedent set when you give really lenient sentences for people killing others with their cars,” sustainable transportation advocate Luke Bornheimer said. “The city needs to redesign streets like King Street.” SFMTA reduced the righthand turn onto King Street from two lanes to one, but Bornheimer believes it won’t be enough.

In December 2021, 71-year-old Lynn Nguyen of San Jose fled the scene of a crash she caused only to cause another. The collisions occurred within 1500 feet of each other. Attempting escape at high speed, Ms. Nguyen crashed into 35-year-old school counselor Hillary Lopez of Fremont. Ms. Lopez later died in hospital. I was unable to learn whether Nguyen was convicted.

In November 2021, 70-year-old Susan Venarucci ran a red light at Franklin and Union Streets in San Francisco. The resulting collision involved multiple cars, causing one to jump the curb and kill 30-year-old educator Andrew Zieman. Mr. Zieman died at the scene. His case only went to trial this March, where Ms. Venarucci was granted a continuance to May 20th. 

No word yet on whether these offenders still possess a valid driver’s license.

License to kill?

California’s justice system sends a disturbing message by its leniency towards elderly offenders. It says the right to drive trumps everyone else’s right to life. Part of me wants to see Cartagena, Lau, Venarucci and Nguyen rot in jail. If I saw a reckless driver mow my family down, that rage and injustice wouldn’t disappear because an eighty-year-old stepped out from behind the wheel. Is it possible the state is taking “Respect your elders” too far?

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One popular suggestion among the concerned is mandatory retesting when people reach 65 or 70. Passes would hold their licenses for five more years until another driving exam. Suspending or revoking the licenses of people in demonstrative cognitive decline might be an act of mercy for everyone. Is it any more ageist to refuse children drivers’ licenses or is that just common sense? A car is not an extension of oneself and it’s hardly a right to own one. It is a piece of heavy machinery with mass and momentum, powerful, flippable, flammable. It symbolizes independence because car dependency itself is a fabrication woven into American geography and culture. 

Car dependency is simple. In America, tradition has dictated that livelihood is a destination. Freeways offer fast, direct routes and cars a way to use them.

What really represents independence is the right to move harmlessly about the world. It’s why I ultimately believe no one should be deprived of that right. Everyone gets old. Why don’t we invest in more forms of mobility for the elderly that don’t land them in the driver’s seat? I understand how intimately independence and mobility tie together. What if not possessing a driver’s license didn’t strand us?

Meanwhile, the need for driver reform is dire. I hope for everyone’s sake that the capitol solves this problem sooner than later. If my driving ended someone’s life (God knows it almost has, I was a teenage menace), I would surrender my license. Wouldn’t you? Living in a city with public transit, thankfully, my partner and I don’t drive. He and I take MUNI, BART, a cab, the ferry. We cross our busy streets often. 

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Jake Warren

Jake Warren

A Potawatomi nonfiction writer and Tenderloin resident possessing an Indigenous perspective on sexuality and a fascination with etymological nuance. Queer decolonial leftist, cannabis industry affiliate, seasoned raver, and unofficial earthquake authority.