Stop Signs

Chris Bateman
By Chris Bateman December 15, 2011 22:33

More than a half-million Americans over age 70 will do it this year, among them some 80,000 Californians and nearly 300 Tuolumne and Calaveras county residents.

Which doesn’t mean surrendering your driver’s license is easy.

Giving up the car keys is one of the most difficult decisions many seniors will make. So difficult, in fact, that it sometimes takes intervention by grown children, concerned friends or even law enforcement to convince some elderly drivers that they should no longer be on the road.

Others stop driving only after their licenses are suspended, their keys taken or their cars sold out from under them.

Knowing when to quit is pivotal in avoiding a difficult, emotional and perhaps confrontational end to your driving career. This requires not only a candid, honest self-evaluation, but a willingness to give up the independence and convenience that driving allows.

Attitudes toward this daunting prospect range widely.

“They’ll have to tear my cold, dead hands from the wheel,” vowed one senior at a recent health fair, adding that driving “is a right, not a privilege.”

Others, like 96-year-old Tom Pugh of Jamestown, voluntarily give up the keys when they notice their abilities slipping.

Pugh stopped driving a decade ago, after noticing his car began to slip forward at stop signs because his leg wasn’t strong enough to keep the brake down. “I was afraid I’d drift into an intersection and get hit,” he says. “I wasn’t going to wait for that to happen.”

As head of Sonora’s AAA office for nearly two decades, Pugh would often advise aging customers to consider giving up the keys as their abilities began to decline. “I wanted to practice what I preached,” he says.

Even though his son-in-law takes him almost anywhere he needs to go, admits Pugh, “I miss it terribly. I still have my car, and sometimes I’m tempted to take the keys, go out there, and just drive away.”

To drive or not to drive?

The stakes are huge.

Without a license, seniors can no longer drive to the store, the post office, the movies or to see friends when they wish. A large measure of their independence is gone –particularly in rural areas such as ours, where public transportation is limited.

Studies have shown that taking keys from older drivers who have no other transportation can cause them to become depressed and inactive, lose access to health care and die sooner. Yet continuing to drive can have its own dire consequences, due to a harsh reality: Reflexes, vision, strength and reaction times deteriorate as we get older.

Drivers 65 and older are in only a third as many traffic accidents as 16- to 24-year-olds, California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) statistics show. But seniors typically drive less, so the two groups’ per-mile crash rate is identical. Yet their relative frailty means drivers 70 and older are four times as likely to die in crashes as 20-year-olds.

Nightmarish stories of elderly drivers killing pedestrians periodically rekindle debate over whether stiffer standards should apply to seniors seeking license renewal. The most notorious case was in 2003, when an 86-year-old driver plowed through a farmers market in Santa Monica, killing nine.

Three years later, in January 2006, a disoriented 79-year-old driver slammed into California Highway Patrol Officer Mike Remmel, who was working a nighttime crash off Highway 49 near Columbia. Remmel survived, but lost portions of both his legs.

Tragedies

The convenience of being able to drive for yet another year pales in contrast with such tragedies.

As for Remmel, he passed the CHP’s rigorous physical test and requalified for patrol. But since the crash he has become better known as the agency’s most eloquent and inspirational spokesman.

His advice to seniors: Don’t wait until you have an accident, get a ticket or are referred to the DMV for a driving exam. And just because you pass a vision test and get licensed for another five years doesn’t mean you will remain a competent driver. So, suggests Remmel, evaluate your own abilities and reflexes every time you get behind the wheel.

“Learn the difference between overcoming challenges and accepting limitations and consider potential consequences,” he adds.  “Driving gives you independence, but the consequences of driving unsafely outweigh any need for that independence.”

As for the woman who hit Remmel, the DMV immediately revoked her license without testing.

How old is too old?

How do seniors know when their driving odometer has run out?

First, there is no answer to the question, “How old is too old?” Age alone is not a true barometer of ability. Some centenarians (more than 300 are licensed statewide, according to the DMV) are safer drivers than 65-year-olds who might have poor vision, medical problems or a history of tickets or accidents.

The Highway Patrol, DMV, AARP, insurance companies and safety advocacy groups have come up with lists of “stop signs” (see related story, Time to quit? Top 10 signs). Any one of these signs can be evidence that driving abilities are slipping. And if you notice two, three or more, it may be time to seriously consider giving up the keys.

“It’s no one thing,” says Sonoran Marty Gerbasi, who has been teaching the AARP’s safe driving class for more than six years. “It’s a set of circumstances. Are you getting lost more often, having more fender benders, driving more and more slowly and being more nervous at the wheel? When you start to answer yes to these questions more often, it’s time to make an assessment.”

With the 76-million member Baby Boomer generation turning 65 at the rate of more than 7,000 a day nationwide, and with older drivers comprising an ever-larger share of the motoring public, such assessments will come more and more often.

‘Silver tsunami’

About 15 percent of drivers nationwide are now 65 and older, but by 2025, more than 25 percent will be, according to AAA’s Foundation for Traffic Safety.

In what the DMV calls a “silver tsunami,” the number of California drivers 65 and older is expected to increase from today’s 3.2 million to more than 5 million within the next 20 years, and to nearly 7 million by 2040.

In Tuolumne and Calaveras counties, that tsunami has already hit and will continue to swell: The more than 20,000 drivers over 65 in both counties now account for nearly 25 percent of the local licensed-driver total. That’s about twice today’s statewide percentage of older drivers.

Given the emerging boom in senior drivers, states are taking a careful look at licensing requirements. These vary from state to state. Only two, Illinois and New Hampshire, now require seniors renewing their licenses to pass driving tests. Ten states require vision tests. Many more require more frequent and in-person renewals after a certain age.

In California, drivers 70 and older must pass both a vision test and a written exam on traffic rules before being issued new, five-year licenses. Also, state law allows doctors, law enforcement officers, relatives, neighbors or anyone questioning a driver’s abilities to confidentially refer that person to the DMV via letter or a written form for a behind-the-wheel test. (“Request for Reexamination” form available online at dmv.ca.gov.)

Being “ratted out,” as this legal procedure is colloquially known, does not necessarily mean you will be tested, fail, and lose your license.

A friend at the DMV

“Before anyone is called in for a test, we investigate the referral,” says Charley Fenner, who heads the DMV’s Senior Ombudsman Office, an advocate for drivers 65 and older dealing with the sometimes-daunting state bureaucracy.

“A few years ago, a lady at a senior apartment complex in the Bay Area referred 10 of her neighbors for testing,” said the 73-year-old Fenner, who has worked for the DMV for a half-century and in 2005 helped set up the Ombudsman’s office. “It turned out that she wanted fewer drivers in her complex so she could get a better parking place. Obviously, we didn’t test those people.”

But about 10,000 senior drivers, most of them 75 and older, are given behind-the-wheel tests each year. About 65 percent pass the first of three trys allowed, another 15 percent pass on subsequent attempts, and the rest fail, says Fenner.

“It’s not easy,” he concedes. “Driving around with an examiner, especially for a senior who may not have taken a test like this for 50 or 60 years, is anything but normal.”

‘Twenty minutes of hell’

Sonoran Jim Duncan, a 77-year-old retired state correctional officer who must retake the driving test every two years because of cataracts, describes it more bluntly.

“It was 20 minutes of hell,” he admits. “Like a lot of seniors, I was nervous going in. But the examiner was fair and it turned out OK.”

License renewal is not an all-or-nothing proposition for seniors. For years, the state has issued restrictive licenses, typically allowing driving only with glasses, during daylight hours or in certain geographical areas. These days, says Fenner, such licenses are increasingly specific, often allowing only a few trips – to the grocery store or doctor’s office, for example – along pre-defined routes that examiners have ridden with the senior drivers.

The DMV may also issue “special instruction permits,” which allow seniors to drive with a licensed friend, relative or instructor to sharpen their skills for a behind-the-wheel test.

“Our goal is to keep seniors mobile as long as possible, as long as they can stay safe,” says Fenner, whose office handles about 3,000 cases a year. “Sometimes it turns out that license suspension is the only option, but we want to make sure our older drivers going through the process get a fair shake.”

To contact DMV’s Senior Ombudsman’s office, call (916) 657-6464.

Self-restriction

Many local seniors are doing what they can to stay safe, while constantly evaluating their abilities. Bill Endicott, an officer and then commander of the CHP’s Sonora-area detachment from 1958 through 1975, is still behind the wheel at 93.

“Just passed my tests,” says Endicott, whose lifetime record is spotless. “My license is good for five more years.”

But that doesn’t mean he’ll be driving for five more years. “My reflexes aren’t what they once were,” he admits. “When you’re a senior citizen, they just begin to fade away.”

So Endicott, who admits he is “not a car guy,” has curtailed his mileage. He drives his 1993 Nissan about 200 miles a month, and “never much farther than going to the dentist in Tuolumne.”

What “stop sign” would get Endicott off the road for good? “If I got into an accident that was my fault, that would be it,” he says. “That would be devastating.”

‘No rain, no night’

Ninety-year-old Mary Kessel of Sonora is going through the same self-scrutiny. Her late husband, Ken, gave up his license at age 86, realizing his own abilities were slipping. Now Mary, a World War II U.S. Navy veteran and retired teacher, is watching her own driving carefully.

“My vision is pretty good, but my reflexes aren’t the same,” she admits. “Just the other day a woman pulled out in front of me at Safeway and I didn’t even see her. I wasn’t looking around the way I should.”

So now she’s doubly cautious, looking in all directions at each corner. “And no more driving in the rain, driving at night or driving to Modesto,” adds Kessel, who renewed her license last year, but knows she won’t do it again.

What would convince her to surrender her keys?

“One more close call would do it,” says Kessel, who’s never received a ticket or been in an accident deemed her fault. “I’d give my license up in a minute.”

Then there’s Bill Hoffman of West Point, who at 103 has to be one of California’s oldest drivers. He just finished a 3,000-mile solo road trip to visit friends in Missouri.

“Well, there have been a few changes out there,” concedes Hoffman, who began driving in 1926 at the wheel of a Model T. “But as far as I can tell, my abilities are still pretty good.”

How will he know when it’s time to stop driving and to retire his ’06 Subaru Outback?

“When my license expires in 2015,” he grins, not missing a beat. “When I turn 107, that will probably do it.”

Staying sharp    

Meanwhile, many older drivers are doing what they can to stay sharp.

Endicott, for instance, signed up for a CHP program called Age Well, Drive Smart. It includes valuable driving tips, what to watch for in deciding when to quit, and ways to remain alert and competent behind the wheel.

“Mike Remmel led that class and the place was packed,” says Endicott. “It was really good.”

Remmel and Rebecca Myers, spokeswoman for the CHP command in San Andreas, both say more Age Well, Drive Smart classes will be scheduled. Check with the CHP (984-3944 Sonora, 754-3541 San Andreas) for dates and times.

AARP also conducts periodic two-day safe driving classes and one-day refreshers for seniors in both Tuolumne and Calaveras counties. Completion, depending on your carrier, can reduce insurance premiums.

“I’ve taught them for 14 years and every 30-member class is full,” says Sonoran Jerry Lewis, adding that each session includes instruction and a discussion of when to quit. “The feedback I get from those who take the class is almost all good.”

Call for AARP class times, dates and reservations (588-8982 Sonora, 754-1495 San Andreas).

‘Be hard on me’

Driving schools also offer behind-the-wheel refresher courses, and seniors who must pass a driving test to renew their licenses have found these valuable.

Jim Duncan took a class from Zertuche’s Driving School two years ago “and I told the instructor to be hard on me.”

“I think it did me a lot of good,” he says. “I was more confident going into the test, and passed it.”

Zertuche’s cofounder Mike Thomas says fewer than 10 percent of his customers are seniors. “We might get one or two a week, mostly seniors facing a DMV driving test or on instructional permits,” he says.

And yes, Thomas adds, if he or one of his instructors believes a client is not driving safely and cannot improve, “we’ll suggest considering other forms of transportation.”

“But that decision is really their own and the DMV’s,” he says.

No easy answer

It can be painfully difficult to acknowledge that your abilities have deteriorated to the point where you are no longer a safe driver – but not as hard as actually surrendering your keys.

“Loss of independence,” says Duncan, “is what scares the heck out of most seniors.”

That’s especially true in the foothills, where transportation options are limited – so limited, in fact, that older drivers here hold onto their licenses far longer than do their counterparts statewide.

Statewide, just over half those over 75 years old still have driver’s licenses, according to DMV and U.S. Census Bureau statistics (see related chart, Senior Driving by the Numbers). In Tuolumne and Calaveras counties, more than 80 percent of these older drivers are licensed.

How hard is it to give it up?

“I heard about one woman who had lost her license some weeks earlier, but would drive to the DMV office every day to get it back,” Gerbasi relates. “The office kept calling her son to come and pick her up.”

Yes, her son had taken away his mother’s keys, says Gerbasi, “but she had 15 or 20 copies made and had hidden them around the house.”

For thousands of other seniors who no longer drive, however, life does go on.

Without insurance premiums and car payments, and with proceeds from the sale of a car, those who quit see immediate savings. This can often cover months or even years of bus or cab rides.

With limited public transportation options, however, those living in outlying rural areas may be forced to move to larger communities where stores, medical care and transportation are closer at hand.

Quitting driving remains a difficult choice, with sometimes painful consequences.

On the plus side of the ledger, however, is the peace of mind that may come with giving up the keys before you become a danger to yourself or others.

© 2011 Friends and Neighbors Magazine

Chris Bateman
By Chris Bateman December 15, 2011 22:33