Friday, October 20, 2006

Weller's Guilty--and So Are We

The Russell Weller verdict was announced today: guilty on all ten counts of vehicular manslaughter with gross negligence in the Santa Monica Farmers Market crash in July, 2003.
Good--he was certainly negligent.
(See my commentary on the case in the Santa Monica Daily Press, October 12, p. 5--online at
But we are negligent too--of letting elderly family members drive when they shouldn't, of not demanding mandatory testing of drivers 75 years and older, of not planning better physical protection for street fairs and markets.
This verdict sends a message: take away the keys before this happens to your parent, grandparent, aunt or uncle.
What it doesn't tell us is that the real culprit here was dementia, not just incompetence in an elderly driver.
Dementia has many forms, including Alzheimer's. But it's not just forgetfulness--it often includes irrational anger, lack of impulse control, and inability to plan a series of actions. This type of dementia must have been behind those ten deaths in Santa Monica, based on witnesses' testimony about Weller's comments after the event.
So how should a just society respond to manslaughter caused by dementia?
Do we lock up an 89-year-old man?
Probably the best verdict would have been "not guilty by reason of insanity," a plea that did not enter into this case.
Weller should be put into some kind of treatment facility where he will be cared for but can no longer harm anyone.
His situation is similar to that of Andrea Yates. Medication and strict supervision (including not being allowed to drive) could have prevented this accident.
It's a steep learning curve for him and for all of us, but we need to learn about dementia as we become a society with more elderly drivers.

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