Early in the morning of Jan. 2 California Highway Patrol officers stopped an 84-year-old man driving the wrong way on the San Bernardino Freeway in East Los Angeles. Concluding that he was disoriented and confused, they impounded his car and took him home.
Later that morning the man, John Arnold, presented himself at the CHP impound garage and picked up his car. The next day he again wound up on the San Bernardino Freeway, once again driving in the wrong direction. This time he slammed into an oncoming car, killing himself and its 16-year-old driver.
The California Department of Motor Vehicles is properly reluctant to lift the drivers' licenses of people simply because they are old, and there are certainly incompetent drivers of all ages.
But the Arnold case was the second accident in less than a month involving an elderly driver going the wrong way on a freeway. Most of these accidents occur without warning; Arnold's was the exception. The question that the California Highway Patrol and the Department of Motor Vehicles must address is how the warning was ignored and why he was able to get his car back so easily. One of the officers who had stopped him on the freeway urged the DMV in writing to reexamine his license.
There is no inherent right to drive. Society has a perfect right to protect itself by regulating who may take a ton or more of machinery onto public streets and drive it around at 60 m.p.h. It was clear to a Highway Patrol officer that Arnold was a public menace behind the wheel. He should not have been able to retrieve his car in the morning as if nothing had happened the night before.
Law-enforcement officers have no power to revoke a license. Only the DMV can do that, but it can do it on the spot in extreme situations. Procedures should be changed so that in cases such as this a license can be lifted immediately pending testing and review. Officers should be given either the power to make emergency decisions or the authority to require the DMV to begin an immediate license revocation. In any case, given the gravity of his mistake the night before and the officer's conclusion that he could not drive, Arnold should have had to submit to a test before getting his car back in the morning. He got the car back too easily.
Cars can be lethal weapons, and driving is an act of faith. We all assume that other drivers will stop for red lights, generally behave rationally and go in the right direction on freeways. People who are too confused to keep the rules of the road straight should be prevented from endangering themselves and everyone else.