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Was Age a Factor in Robert Zelnick’s Vehicular Homicide Conviction?

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Attorney Jason Chan

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You may have heard of Robert Zelnick, a former ABC News correspondent and professor of journalism at Boston University.  He was a news correspondent for over 20 years, with assignments at places like the Pentagon, Israel and Moscow during his long, successful career.  At age 73, he is currently a research fellow at Stanford University.  However, he is more recently known for an unfortunate incident that occurred on Oct. 7, 2011.

A Tragic Accident.

On that afternoon, Zelnick was leaving the Pinehills Golf Club in Plymouth, Massachusetts when he turned his 2006 BMW SUV into the path of a motorcycle.  The motorcycle was being driven by Brendan M. Kennedy, a 26-year-old on his way to work at the golf club’s restaurant. Kennedy could not stop his motorcycle in time to avoid the collision and was killed.  Zelnick was not speeding or under the influence of alcohol or drugs at the time of the incident.  However, Zelnick’s health was declining as he was battling Parkinson’s disease.

Zelnick Was Convicted of Vehicular Homicide.

Laws regarding the elements of vehicular homicide, and the sentence that charge carries, vary from state to state.  In Massachusetts, in order to convict someone of vehicular homicide, the prosecutor must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant was driving recklessly or negligently, which directly caused the death of another.

After a two-day bench trial before Judge J. Thomas Kirkman, Zelnick was found guilty of negligent vehicular homicide, which is a misdemeanor.  He was also charged with the civil infraction of failure to yield.  He was found to be negligent because, “given his health condition at the time, he should not have been operating a vehicle.”  He was sentenced to three years of probation and his driver’s license was revoked.  Zelnick, who knew the victim, was also ordered to write an apology letter to Brendan Kennedy’s family.

Is age a factor in driver safety?

Unfortunately, motor vehicle accidents at the hands of the elderly are not unusual.  In September of last year, Preston Carter who was about to turn 101, plowed into eleven people while backing out of a parking lot near an elementary school in Los Angeles.  He injured nine children.  Luckily no one was killed.

People were not so lucky, however, in 2003 when 86-year-old George Weller sped through an open-air street market in Santa Monica, California killing 10 people and injuring 63 more. He was found guilty of vehicular manslaughter in that case.

Richard Nix, executive director of Agingcare.com, suggests that many elderly drivers do not realize that their reflexes, hearing and eyesight are not what they used to be.  Nor do they consider that possible side effects of medications they are taking may also impair their judgment or coordination.  “People have been driving their whole life and have trouble believing they’re incapable of continuing,” he said. “They feel like their independence has been taken away,” says Nix.  But when they are no longer capable, something needs to be done.

How do we address the safety risks older drivers present?

According to some recent statistics, the number of American seniors (age 65 and older) will increase from 39 million in 2010 to 69 million in 2030. Today, only 15% of all drivers in our country are 65 or older, but by 2025, approximately 25% will be seniors.  Statistics show that drivers 70 and older have a high fatality rate per mile driven, second only to drivers younger than 25. So, if seniors are at an increased risk of endangering others on the road, what should be done?

Massachusetts State Senator Brian Joyce has been pushing a bill that would require drivers over the age of 85 to take a vision and road test every five years in order to retain their licenses. Currently, in most states, drivers are tested at 16 ½ when they first get their driver’s license, and then they are never road tested again.  Until the legislature effectively addresses this concern, the only solution may be to enlist the help of family and friends to persuade their loved ones to surrender their keys when their driving abilities have become compromised.


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