The days ahead could hardly be more important: President Bush delivers his first State of the Union address to the nation since the Iraq invasion; the Democrats who would like to succeed him in the White House meet their first tests in Iowa and New Hampshire; the National Football League overdoes its annual extravaganza known as the Super Bowl. However, all of this important current history is overshadowed, for the next few days at least, by Detroit's International Auto Show.

The new cars from American and foreign producers look sleeker and promise performance hardly imaginable a decade or two ago. Several advertise road speeds of more than 150 miles an hour, although the sales literature doesn't suggest where they should be driven at that speed. Seldom mentioned in the sales literature is either pollution control or fuel consumption.

As a nation of car lovers, we can drool with lust and envy as we tour shows like that in Detroit. But to face our more realistic transportation and traffic problems, complicated by an aging population, permit me to take a slight detour.

In Santa Monica, Calif., last summer, an aged driver lost control of his car, plowed into a crowd of pedestrians and killed 10 and injured 50 of them. This type of accident has happened before and is destined to happen again. Editorialists, columnists and commentators across the country tut-tutted. They expressed sympathy for our older citizens. They understood their need for transportation and the terrible blow to their independence if they were denied the right to drive. But most seemed to think that snatching away their driver's licenses was the only solution. Let me suggest another possibility.

First of all, let us agree that, to assure transportation around town, no one needs a machine that can accelerate from 0 to 60 miles an hour in eight seconds. And what does the elderly driver need with a machine that weighs 17 tons, is built like a tank and is capable of plowing through almost any obstacle?

Almost everyone, including the aged themselves, recognizes personal limitations. Only the most exceptional human specimen is lucky enough in his or her 80s to still have perfect eyesight and hearing and the reflexes of years ago. Many of the serious accidents involving the aged are a result of fouled reflexes -- hitting the accelerator instead of the brake, swinging the wheel left when to the right would have escaped the impending calamity.

Wouldn't the solution be to remove the dangerous weapon that the automobile becomes in the hands of the aged? It could be done without leaving the old driver stranded. We would supply him or her with a suitable, but still far less deadly, automobile. Our car would have a top speed of, say, just 20 miles an hour. Its accelerator and brake pedals would be so clearly defined that it would be almost impossible, even in panic, to confuse them.

The small engine and other components this car would require would cut substantially the weight of the car, removing its lethal potential if it should spin out of control. The small car -- let's give it a name: the City Car -- clearly would not serve for cross-country tourism or as a commuter on the high-speed highways, but it would take our aged comfortably and more safely into the nearby village and around town and city. It might slow traffic a bit on one-way streets, but on few of those does any car get up above 20 or so miles an hour. On the wider city streets, the City Car will be in the usually slower right lane anyway.

Motorized scooters are definitely helpful in getting around one's neighborhood, but they don't have the range of the automobile, are open to the elements and are not always permitted on city sidewalks. Besides, they seem to be an admission of extreme disability, of advanced old age. A machine that looked like a car, operated like a car and had the convenience of a car would bolster considerably the ego of the aging -- and not be a menace to the pedestrian population.


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(c) 2004 Walter Cronkite

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