Are Elderly Drivers Safe Behind the Wheel?

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Dick McCarthy of Canfield is 88 years old. Like many of us, he has been driving since he was 16.

“The cars didn’t go fast then. Although I’ve never been a fast driver,” McCarthy said. “My dad had a 1932 Chevrolet, which was a gear shift model. Automatics were just coming into being at that time. That’s what we learned to drive on, the one where you had to push the clutch in.”

McCarthy said even though cars were a lot cheaper in those days, people didn’t go buy a new car if their current one was damaged in a crash. He said if it was damaged, he was not allowed to drive the car again.

And 72 years later, the cars do go fast, and so do a lot of the people behind the wheel.

In March, a 74-year-old woman from Columbiana mistook the gas pedal for the brake and crashed through the windows of the Boardman Post Office. No one was hurt, but it was the fourth accident involving an elderly driver this year.

So Greg Anderson, an instructor with All Star Driving School, posed this question: How unsafe are elderly drivers?

“I feel safe when I’m driving. I don’t feel like an accident ready to happen or anything like that,” McCarthy said.

And he should feel safe because McCarthy has never had an accident, which is something that can’t be said about many younger drivers.

According to the Ohio Department of Public Safety crash statistics report for 2011, there were more than 122,000 people between the ages of 16 and 25 involved in accidents that year. There were just under 39,000 accidents involving people age 66 and older in the same year.

While that may surprise many people, it doesn’t surprise Anderson. During a recent drive, an elderly driver was behind Anderson on the road.

“Now look how nice and back and far away he is from us. And he’s staying way back and I’m  actually driving the speed limit,” Anderson said.

And when Anderson slowed down, the driver behind him kept his following distance.

But what happened when a younger driver was in the same situation?

“Now the driver behind me is tailgating me, and they could easily move  around me,  but they’re trying to push me to go faster,” Anderson said.

McCarthy said he has noticed some challenges driving as he gets older. One of them is getting used to all the automated controls for the radio and seats.

“Staying awake,” he said with a laugh. “That’s kind of a joke, but it’s not too. If you get on the turnpike and you are real tired lots of times. Well if I was going to Michigan and I get real tired, then I pull in and take a half hour nap. I can fall asleep pretty easily. I try to avoid falling asleep at red lights.”

He said he doesn’t  have trouble at night with lights and he’s never been frightened by driving. He said he has never had a bad experience and has never had an accident.

“But I’m cautious also and I’m careful of my surroundings,” McCarthy said.

But the same can’t be said about drivers of any age who don’t have to face questions about their ability to handle the road.

“Oh man, I’d be lost without a car, if I couldn’t drive. Well you know I still go to work, but I do other things too. Ii go to the gym every morning first thing and I don’t have anyone here to haul me around. I don’t know what I would do if I couldn’t drive,” McCarthy said. “I never even thought of it because I hope I die before that [inability to drive] happens. I don’t know, I’d have to have friends or my kids or someone haul me around. You can’t survive in this day and age without transportation.”

Anderson agreed.

“Driving is their independence. And just like a young 16-year-old wants their license for their independence, an elderly driver needs to drive for their independence. And if we take that away from them, they lose their independence. And it’s a hard call. How unsafe are they? And who’s  gonna make that call? That’s the big problem,” he said.

And it’s not a simple process to take away someone’s license. The following information was provided by the Ohio Department of Public Safety:

  • When the Bureau of Motor Vehicles receives information that a person has a medical condition or mental or physical disability that could impair their ability to operate a motor vehicle, the person is required to submit a medical statement and/or take a driver license examination.  Some of the conditions included are cardiovascular disease, respiratory conditions, diabetes, metabolic and neurological disorders, vision abnormalities, psychiatric disorders, and muscular-skeletal disorders.
  • Refusal or neglect of the driver license holder to submit to an examination is grounds for suspension of their driving privileges. Upon receipt of the medical statement and/or driver license exam results, the person may be allowed to retain their present license, their driving privileges may be suspended, or they may be issued a restricted license.
  • “We generally receive our information from driver license exam forms and applications.  There are three questions on the examination form and application pertaining to medical and physical problems and it is the person’s legal responsibility to report their conditions to the Bureau,” said Lindsay Bohrer, Bureau of Motor Vehicles public information officer.
  • 1.  Do you have a condition that results in episodic impairment of consciousness or loss of muscular control?
  • 2.  Do you have a physical or mental condition that prevents you from exercising reasonable and ordinary control of a motor vehicle?
  • a.   If yes, what is the nature and extent of the condition?
  • b.   What is the name and address of the attending physician?
  • 3.   Are you chemically dependent on alcohol or a drug of abuse and currently using alcohol and/or a drug of abuse?
  • Bohrer said the BMV also receives information from law enforcement agencies, courts, doctors, hospitals, rehabilitation centers, and at times from the individual themselves reporting their medical condition. The Bureau also can take action on letters from neighbors, friends, family members and other concerned citizens. However, before action is taken, an investigation is conducted by the Bureau to verify the information contained in the letter is accurate and to determine if there is sufficient cause to require a medical statement and/or driver license examination.
  • The Bureau of Motor Vehicles’ medical consultant and legal counsel approved the medical statement form and its guidelines for evaluation of medical cases.  There is no specific length of time that a person’s condition must be under medical control in order to obtain a driver license in Ohio. The Bureau allows the driver’s treating physician to determine if their condition is under sufficient medical control to allow safe operation of a motor vehicle.   Based on the physician’s recommendations, driving privileges are granted or suspended.  The Bureau also asks the physician at what time lengths they feel is necessary for their patient to be required to recertify their driving abilities and medical statements.
  • If a medical statement is received, indicating that the driver’s condition is not under sufficient control, based on their physician’s medical opinion, to safely operate a motor vehicle, then driving privileges are denied and the driver license is suspended.  A person whose license is denied or suspended may appeal the decision by requesting an administrative hearing.  The request must be submitted in writing within thirty (30) days of the mailing of the suspension/denial notice.  A request for an administrative hearing does not delay the suspension.

Anderson said one of the biggest driving offenses for people of all ages is driving too fast. He said most drivers need to understand that the speed limit is for ideal conditions.

“For example right now we’re driving into the sun, so the speed limit on this road is 40 miles an hour, but because I’m driving into the sun, it’s not an ideal condition because my sight is limited because of the sun and I have my sunglasses on and I would have my visor down,” Anderson said. “So you would go 5 under the speed limit, and I’m going to go 5 under and if you watch cars around me they’re gonna come flying around me and cut in front of me and they’re gonna drive really crazy because in their case, in their minds, I’m driving too slow.”

Anderson said if someone sees an elderly driver, they should be a little bit more sympathetic to the fact they’re trying to be cautious and trying to be a little bit more conservative in their driving.

“Us being younger are not sympathetic to that. And we drive and we expect everybody to drive like us, and a little bit faster and a little bit more aggressively,” Anderson said.

So perhaps all of us can take a lesson from those more cautious drivers and learn to keep a safe distance too.

“That much speed doesn’t make that much difference. You’re not going to get there that much more quickly,”  McCarthy  said.

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