Older Drivers Pose
Growing Risk on Roads
As Their Numbers Rise
They Crash More Than Many,
Yet Taking Away Wheels
Leads to Isolation, Anger
A Man Runs Over His Wife
By Joan E. Rigdon
The Wall Street Journal
(Copyright (c) 1993, Dow Jones & Co., Inc.)
By the year 2020, the number of licensed drivers over age 75 will more
than double to 17.5 million. Of these, well over half will suffer from
cataracts, dementia or nervous disorders that can make their hands
tremble on steering wheels. Eighty percent will take one or more
prescription medicines, including some that make them dizzy or drowsy.
As a group, they will drive an estimated 84 billion miles a year.
The potential for disaster is already evident. While older drivers as a
group aren't nearly as dangerous as teenagers, their accident rates slowly
begin rising at age 60, and start rocketing after age 75. After age 85, they
are involved in accidents more than four times as often as the safest
drivers, those age 50 to 59, on a mile-for-mile basis. And when they are
in accidents, drivers over age 85 are 15 times as likely to die as drivers in
their 40s, according to a Wall Street Journal computer analysis of the
Department of Transportation's fatal-accident data for 1990 (see
accompanying illustration -- WSJ Oct. 29, 1993).
Elderly drivers have played a role in some horrific recent accidents. Last
year, 75-year-old Stella Maychick mowed down an afternoon crowd in
New York City's Washington Square Park, killing four people and
injuring 27 others. (Her lawyer says her car raced out of control and that
her age wasn't a factor.) In July, 83-year-old Meyer Holtzin lost control
of his car in a supermarket parking lot in Philadelphia; according to
witnesses and a police diagram, he hit a tree, careened through the air,
and landed at a bus stop, striking three children waiting there with their
father and killing one of them, six-year-old Bruce Ferguson Jr. Mr.
Holtzin couldn't be reached and his lawyer declined comment.
"We need some type of mandatory testing every five or six years," says
the senior Bruce Ferguson, who watched as the car slammed into his
three young children with such force that they were flung across a street.
His daughters, ages four and eight, were injured but survived.
Without widespread retesting for seniors, "we're just going to slaughter
more people on the highways," adds Marian Lewis, a former state
representative in Florida, where about 18% of the population is over 65.
Yet lawmakers and transportation officials have done little to put the
brakes on this deadly trend. Many states allow even their oldest drivers
to simply renew by mail. Requiring elderly drivers to be retested could
run afoul of federal antidiscrimination laws, says the powerful seniors
lobby, the American Association of Retired Persons. And any restrictions
smack of cruelty toward elderly people who might, without cars, become
shut-ins. As Evelyn Von Pohle, an 81-year-old retired accountant from
Longwood, Fla., says, "I'd rather be pushing up daisies than live without a
Of course, not all older drivers are dangerous. On average, drivers over
the age of 65 still are involved in fewer accidents per mile than those
under 30. And some seniors retain excellent driving skills well beyond
their 80s. Others compensate for failing health by changing their driving
habits. They quit driving at night, on busy roads and during rush hours.
Trouble is, seniors can't compensate for problems they may not even be
aware of, such as slower reaction times and senility. Nor can they correct
for the side effects of medications.
Salvatore Starvaggi, an 88-year-old former truck driver, for one, was on
nine different medications last year when he ran down his wife and killed
her in a Wayne, N.J., shopping-mall parking lot while trying to pick her
up, according to a National Transportation Safety Board accident report.
One of the medications was for senility, two caused drowsiness and two
specifically urged caution when driving because they may cause dizziness.
Mr. Starvaggi had also crashed into a parked car just seven months
earlier. Yet after the accident that killed his wife, he told police he had
never had any trouble driving. He couldn't be reached.
Across town at another mall that day, 82-year-old Ralph Naimoli plowed
into three pedestrians in the parking lot, landing all of them in the hospital.
Even though one of the pedestrians ended up on the hood of his
Oldsmobile Delta 88, and even though the car also careened into a tree,
"I continue to drive," Mr. Naimoli said last month.
A patchwork of weak state laws makes it almost impossible to weed out
potentially dangerous drivers like these in advance. Thirteen states allow
drivers to renew their licenses by mail for up to 15 years at a time, and at
least a dozen more have loopholes allowing mail renewals indefinitely.
Just seven states, including Oregon and California, require doctors to
report conditions that impair a person's ability to drive. And only three
states require road tests beyond the initial one to get a license.
The states with the largest elderly populations are among the most lax.
Florida, with the nation's largest proportion of seniors, allows drivers to
renew by mail for up to six years at a time. Pennsylvania, with the
third-highest percentage of seniors, allows most drivers to renew by mail
until they die, unless they are chosen in a lottery for re-testing or their
doctor reports them to state officials for conditions that may impair
What's more, no state revokes a driver's license on the spot, even if the
driver kills someone. State-law enforcers typically must wait until the
driver is convicted of a crime such as criminally negligent homicide, which
usually only happens in cases involving drunk drivers or drivers who leave
an accident scene.
Revoking an elderly person's license, though, isn't always the answer. For
some seniors, a license isn't just a means to mobility, but a passport to
independence -- the last stop before a nursing home.
"I'm so depressed right now it's pathetic," says Charles Marsh, a
68-year-old retired Army major from Garden Grove, Calif. "I can't go
any place. I can't see anything or do anything." Until a few months ago,
Mr. Marsh's pride and joy was his black 1983 Cadillac, which he
washed weekly and drove every day. There were bingo games and
cookouts with his Elk's lodge, meetings of the local Chamber of
Commerce, and weekly jaunts to the movies to see action flicks.
But six months ago, Mr. Marsh had to give up driving when he lost feeling
in his feet because of diabetes. Now, he is a virtual shut-in, reduced to
watching "Star Trek: The Next Generation" on TV and eating whatever
the Meals-on-Wheels volunteers bring him. So desperate is he to get out
that he allows a friend to use his beloved car on the condition that the
friend occasionally take him, too. But sometimes the friend takes off with
the car for hours. "He takes advantage of me," says a frustrated Mr.
Marsh. But "if I say anything to him, he'll just walk away -- and that will
leave me with nobody at all."
Refusing to Quit
So awful is the prospect of loneliness and isolation that some seniors
refuse to quit driving long after they should. Alven Bertelsen, 88, of
Eugene, Ore., had his license suspended in January, after he suffered a
slight stroke. (Stroke victims in Oregon have their licenses suspended and
must be retested to renew.) His 86-year-old wife, Sadie, believes her
husband would be a danger on the road.
"He doesn't think fast enough," she says. He has run stop signs and driven
the wrong way down a one-way street, "scaring the daylights out of me."
Yet her husband, who has fallen into a deep depression over the license
suspension, has already tried three times to get his license back -- failing
each time. The second time, a motor-vehicles examiner told him to quit,
telling him he might hurt someone, Mrs. Bertelsen says. He didn't listen.
He finally gave up just recently, after he flunked a third time and his
examiner begged him not to try again. He declines to comment.
When older drivers do get into accidents, they may find that cars aren't
made to protect them. Federal car-safety regulations are geared to
protect 5-foot-10-inch, 170-pound men involved in 30 miles-an-hour
head-on crashes. But the elderly typically aren't that big, and they often
get hit on the side. New side-impact standards, which all new cars must
meet by 1997, are designed to reduce side-impact injuries -- yet the stiff
padding needed to meet the new standards can in some cases hurt
seniors, breaking brittle bones.
Because the very old are also more prone to ailments such as pneumonia
brought on by bed rest, they sometimes die as a result of crashes that are
barely more than fender benders. While teens involved in fatal accidents
are four times as likely to survive if they wear seat belts, people over age
65 who belt up are only 1.5 times as likely to survive, the Journal's
Teenagers tend to get into accidents because of drunk driving and
speeding. But for the elderly, failure to yield to oncoming traffic tops the
list. Failure to yield was a factor in 44% of all fatal accidents involving
drivers over age 85, the Journal's analysis found, compared with less than
7% for drivers under age 55. Seniors dart into traffic at intersections, or
turn in front of oncoming traffic, often because of deteriorating depth
perception or peripheral vision, say state licensing officials.
Their frequent failure to yield helps explain why seniors often get hit in the
side. Indeed, more than 40% of fatal crashes involving drivers over the
age of 80 are side-impact crashes, more than double the percentage for
drivers between the ages of 25 and 50. And seniors die even as a result
of low-speed side crashes: At relative speeds under 33 miles an hour,
86% of those over age 60 died, compared with no one under age 40, a
1983 study by the Society for Automotive Engineers found.
One such accident killed Wilfred Robichard, an 83-year-old from Sound
Beach, N.Y. Mr. Robichard was making a left turn on a Port Jefferson
Station, N.Y., highway in March when, to avoid another car, he suddenly
stopped dead in the middle of the intersection -- even though a Chevy
Lumina was approaching to his right. The driver of that car, bus driver
Anthony Cuiffo, will never forget what happened next: "I hit the brakes,
but I couldn't move around" to avoid an accident. In the crash that
followed, both Mr. Robichard and one of his two passengers, a
78-year-old woman, were killed. No charges were filed against Mr.
Inattentiveness, such as talking or eating, was a factor in more than 13%
of all fatal accidents involving drivers over age 85, more than double the
rate of the safest drivers, those age 50 to 59, the Journal found. And
disobeying signs was a factor in about 14% of fatal accidents involving
drivers over age 80, almost three times the rate of drivers under age 65.
In July, for example, Texas police say 92-year-old Viola Nelson Rizzo
took a wrong turn on her way to exchange a pair of shoes and ended up
on the tarmac of Houston Gulf Airport, where she crashed into a Piper
plane taxiing toward the runway. No one was seriously hurt.
To weed out the most dangerous drivers, Ms. Lewis, the former Florida
state representative, tried -- twice -- to introduce a bill requiring regular
road tests for drivers over age 80. The three states that do have such
road tests -- Illinois, Indiana and New Hampshire -- say they believe the
measure has prevented accidents. In Illinois, for example, 17% of 81- to
86-year-olds, and 23% of those over 87, have failed required vision and
driving tests this year through July.
In Florida, though, Ms. Lewis's proposed bill died both times, in 1989
and 1990, amid a barrage of hate mail from senior citizens. "They said it
was discriminatory and that I was picking on them," says Ms. Lewis, who
has since retired from office. "There were very derogatory remarks that I
must have something wrong with my brain."
"We want the roads safe. We just don't want older people paying a
higher price than is paid by any other driver," retorts Michael Seaton, an
executive with the American Association of Retired Persons, which
lobbied against Ms. Lewis's proposal. AARP advocates mandatory
renewal tests for all drivers, not just the elderly, although it hasn't
challenged existing state restrictions on elderly drivers.
Congress is now mulling a bill that would fund research on weeding out
highrisk drivers without targeting the elderly. Called the High Risk
Driver's Act, it focuses largely on preventing teens from driving drunk.
AARP supports the bill because it promotes restricting licenses --
allowing daytime driving only, for instance -- instead of revoking them.
Most states already issue daylight-driving licenses to some drivers, such
as those with poor vision. And a handful, including Oregon, Washington,
Iowa and most recently California, offer further restrictions, such as
barring driving during rush hours. But the restricted-license programs
have had mixed results so far.
A Deadly Experiment
Arizona's Sun City, the big retirement community, for example, abruptly
abandoned its program in 1985 after an elderly woman with a restricted
license ran down and killed a pedestrian in a parking lot. And Tony
DeLorenzo, a licensing official at Oregon's Motor Vehicle Division, says
the state early on gave a restricted license to an older man even though he
had failed his test several times, figuring he needed to be able to run
errands. The man later struck and crippled a child.
The various states involved say they haven't kept track of the
restricted-license programs' results. But the Journal's analysis found that
fatal-accident rates for the elderly aren't significantly different in states that
have the programs. Restricting seniors to daylight hours may not help
much simply because many elderly drivers don't drive at night anyway.
According to the Journal's analysis, some 79% of fatal accidents involving
people age 65 and older occur in the daytime, compared with 43% of
fatal accidents involving people between the ages of 15 and 29.
With no standard method to pinpoint dangerous elderly drivers and get
them off the roads, perhaps the best that many states can do is to simply
encourage people to anonymously report bad drivers. Yet many people
are loathe to do so. Maureen Aber of Verona, Pa., says she still feels
guilty about a woman she turned in a few years ago.
The woman, who was in her early 80s, drove poorly and often left her
car parked halfway in the street. Ms. Aber pointed out the problem, but
the woman always said she was too tired to park again. Worried that the
woman might kill someone, Ms. Aber called the police.
Soon after, state officials retested the woman and revoked her license.
Without her wheels, the woman was forced to move into a nursing home,
where she subsequently died. "She was crushed" over losing her license,
Ms. Aber recalls. "I did feel responsible."
Patricia G. Davis contributed to this article.
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