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Thursday, March 22, 2007

When Should Older Drivers Stop Driving?

Debate Rages About Drivers 65 and Older Who Account for Second Highest Number of Road Fatalities

It can be hard to get someone you love to hang up the car keys forever. Roma Abbott of Glen Carbon, Ill. was horrified to see her husband's car drift along a busy two-lane highway. Pat Jasper grandchildren in south St. Louis County, Miss., didn't want to ride with Grandpa anymore.

Both women were able to successfully deal with the sensitive matter of persuading their husbands, whose driving skills had eroded to a dangerous point, to bring to a close their decades behind the wheel. With the perpetual aging of America's population, it's an issue that most families eventually tackle.

But it's not an easy chapter in modern life. The issue had been building over two years as his dementia became more obvious. Abbott confronted her husband in 2001 about the weaving she had witnessed from her own car on busy Illinois Route 159. She said her husband spoke of "fumbling with his sunglasses." Later, he agreed to sell his car.

Richard Jasper died last May at age 80, but he took a bit more persuading. Diabetes had seriously diminished his eyesight by 2000. He had several accidents. Their grandchildren expressed concern about his driving.

"It's a hard thing to discuss," said Pat Jasper. "He was my husband. His freedom was important to him. I prayed, and the family did it together.

"But I think it's harder for a man. To be the guardian and provider all these years, and to suddenly be in the passenger seat while his wife drives - that can be hard on a man's pride."

Sensitive issues such as self-respect and freedom arise in discussions with families and specialists who deal with the deterioration of driving skills with age.

For families, the day of reckoning can make for a bumpy ride.

"I've seen reactions all over the map," said driver-rehabilitation specialist Natalie Goldman. "I have some people who are relieved to give up driving. I've had people get real angry, who say they're going to drive no matter what."

Goldman's program advises about one-fourth of its drivers to quit driving, and another one-third to drive only during daylight and stay away from major roads.

Sheldon Suroff of Creve Coeur, Mo. lobbied for Missouri's law that set up a reporting system for senior drivers, and said he's been told that about one third of the drivers who were reported lose their licenses. "We'll never know how many lives we save, but it gets some people off the road," he said.

Sheldon and Karen Suroff pushed for the law after a 91-year-old motorist driving the wrong way on Interstate 70 in western Missouri killed their son, Jason, 21. Sheldon Suroff said the wrong-way driver had suffered from dementia and didn't know where he was when officers caught up with him near the Indiana-Illinois line.

Suroff said he's working with partners in other states to push for similar laws, and emphasizes that confidential reports can be made on drivers of any age. "This is not a law to go after older people," he said.

Federal safety statistics reveal that drivers 16 to 24 are responsible for the highest number of deaths based on miles driven. But drivers 65 and older account for the second highest category.

Arthur Visor, a safe-driving course teacher for the AARP in St. Louis County, revealed that many of his students admit to difficulties with driving, but almost no one encourages a mandatory age cutoff.

Most of Visor's students are 70 or older, and most sign up for the eight-hour classroom course to qualify for auto-insurance discounts. But he said some confess to having been in accidents or to getting pressure from family members to retire from driving. Visor, 71, said he attempts to explain that everyone, even younger people, aren't what they used to be.

"I mention sports figures like (Rams running back) Marshall Faulk," said the retired teacher. "If people can talk about Marshall being slower than he used to be, what's wrong with admitting slower reaction time at 70?"

Still, the debate rages about what age should older drivers stop driving.

The executive director for FOCUS on Senior Citizens, Amelia Heath, said older drivers shouldn't have any driving restrictions as long as they continue to drive safely.

"I’m an older driver, and I don't think we should have to do anything extra unless we've demonstrated that we aren't capable of driving safely," Heath said. "I don’t think age alone is a determining factor."

Although some people argue that older drivers are unsafe drivers, Robert Tucker, 67, an everyday driver, said that his ability to drive safely is perfectly fine.

But he feels that he, and everyone else at that age, should be required to retake a driver's test every two years after they reach 70.

"I feel like when you get a certain age you should give your car up," Tucker said. "I've seen a lot of 80-year-olds out [driving] on the street that really shouldn’t have been there."

According to experts, in general older drivers cause fewer traffic accidents than any other age group, except after they reach the age of 69.

The director of development for the CARE Research and Development Lab at the University of Alabama, which compiles traffic records and monitors traffic safety in Alabama, said the reason older drivers are less likely to cause a wreck is because they're not risk takers.

"Our studies show that the older a person gets, the less risk they take," said David Brown. "The high-risk items that cause the most severe crashes are not being restrained, via seatbelt or child seat, speeding and alcohol or drug use in that order. These are the things that younger people do typically more than older drivers."

According to Brown, one out of every 10 crashes in Alabama where the cause of the wreck was speeding, a 16-year-old driver was driving.

"Just that one age group, at 16 years old, is about eight times more likely to cause a crash than any other age group," Brown said.

Only 1 in 2000 speeding-related crashes are caused by drivers aged 69 to 80.

"[Older drivers] are a very trainable group," said Brown. "If you tell them, don’t go out at night, wear your seat belt and drive the speed limit, they’ll do it."

Overall, Brown said 1 in 5 accidents are caused by people between the ages of 16 and 20. He said drivers between the ages of 69 and 80 cause about 1 in 255 crashes, which is a considerably smaller ratio than the 16-through-20-year-old group, but it is the second highest age group responsible for vehicle wrecks.

"We have found that the breakeven point for older people is 69," Brown said. "Above age 69, they'll have more problems associated with impairment."

"Senior diminished physical capacity affects their driving because they're not seeing as well, aren't able to turn their head as well and not reacting as fast," he said.

According to Chief Ken Swindle of the Tuscaloosa Police Department, older drivers haven't been an issue. But if someone believes that a particular driver – older or otherwise – shouldn't be on the road, action can be taken.

"If someone thinks a family member or someone else is unable to drive, he said, "they can go through the State Troopers office and Department of Motor Vehicles and get a letter filed that'll go before a medical board and a decision will be made on whether or not that person can continue driving."

Alternative ways of restricting older drivers, such as more frequent driver's tests, are sometimes employed, and a few are actually in place, though they're not age specific.

"There are some states like New Jersey that test everyone every time you go for renewal," said Brown. "That’s how I think it may happen here if any laws are passed to cut down on accidents involving older drivers because otherwise you get into age discrimination."

The National Safety Commission recommends The Driver Education Handbook for Parents as a valuable teaching tool for parents who are concerned with their teen's driving safety and understand the value of quality instruction.

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