Collision Course

old woman and car on icy road
We should all be so lucky as Myrtle Manville, reports CBS News Correspondent Jim Axelrod for CBS News Sunday Morning.

Turning 95, she's got her health, her family, her friends, days full of activity in Sun City, Ariz. – and absolutely no intention of giving up her car.

"It's very hard to give up your - your wheels," says she. "I've talked to…many of my friends about it. And they all say the same thing. They don't know what they would do without their wheels."

Even if there was good mass transit near her, Myrtle would still want to get behind the wheel. For many seniors, driving is perhaps the one activity that maintains their independence, while age conspires to rob them of it in so many other ways.

"I drive to church. I drive to the grocery store at least twice a week. I do a little volunteer work down at Boswell Hospital," says Myrtle. "You know, it's not that far. None of these places are very far. But you do need to drive."

But in a state where 1 out of 5 drivers is 65 or older, and where the only additional requirement for most senior drivers is an eye exam every 5 years, drivers like Myrtle Manville feel they're under attack because of their age.

"It's a matter of safety. Do you want drivers out there, that can't control their vehicle?" says state Rep. Mike Gleason. He wants high-risk, unfit older drivers off Arizona's roads. Last January, he filed a bill to force drivers 75 and older to pass road and vision tests every two years.

Elder Driving Laws
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Right now, 32 states in the U.S. have no additional requirements for seniors renewing their licenses, even though drivers 75 and older have higher rates of fatal accidents than any other group except teen-agers.

Florida, one of the states with no special requirements, leads the country in older driver deaths. An elderly driver in Florida can go 18 years between eye and ear exams. That means that someone moving to the state and getting a license at 75 doesn't have to be checked again until they're 93.

Roma Hilsberg and her friends in Florida say it has been getting dangerous around their condo complex.

"Something has to be done to help not only our population, but the people we are inflicting ourselves upon," she says.

Adds one of her friends, I've seen people in my own building who cannot walk and they get into a car. They're using walkers because their knees don't work, and they get into a car to drive. And one person is asked, 'What happens if you have an emergency and you have to use the brakes?' 'Oh, well, I can drive.' He can't move his legs! How is he gonna (apply) the brakes? It's just - it's a very difficult situation."

Just as in Arizona, Florida State Rep. Ron Greenstein floated an idea for a law requiring extra senior testing. (Once a person turned 75, he proposed that every four years, they have a vision and hearing test.)

But then he backed off in the face of another law in Florida: The law of political reality.

Says Hillsberg, "We're a big voting block. No question about it. And we have to be catered to."

Florida retiree Morry Gurwich may be a touch sensitive about his age, but he's also a realist. That's why he is not waiting for any law to require extra exams. He decided, on his own, to visit the Lifelong Mobility Center at Florida Atlantic University.

Says Gurwich, "Well, you know, when you take a driver's license away, you take away their life… I think everybody should be examined when they hit 70 or 75, something like that. They should be examined because…you lose something… Something in your character changes a little bit, too… It is a whole new ballgame, a whole new life."

At the Mobility Center, they put Morry through a battery of short exams, measuring his vision, strength, reflexes, and cognition.

"Age has a tremendous effect on your mind, and you don't know what you're gonna say sometimes," Morry says. "Sometimes you babble. Sometimes you're not coherent. Sometimes your legs don't work properly. It's — it's a big problem, getting older. It's — it's rough."

Actually, says Wendy Stav who administers the test in Florida, just 5 percent of those tested are asked to stop driving. Most older drivers pass with only minor issues.

"It's very touchy, and nobody wants to touch it," says Stav. "And bills get proposed, saying, 'Well, we should just test everybody over a certain age.' And once that bill gets thrown out, there's no further discussion. And nobody's ever said, 'What can we do to fix the problem?'"

"Transportation is a lot more than simply going to the store and going to the doctor's," says Joe Coughlin, who directs the age lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "This is the way that we maintain the connections with all those little activities that when you put them together we call life. And that transportation, that driving, is the glue that holds our life together."

For Coughlin, tackling the issue of older drivers is a matter of widening the debate beyond whether seniors should be yanked off the roads.

He says the U.S. is an aging country. "And all of a sudden," he explains, "all those things that we take for granted every day, like driving or cleaning our home, goin out shopping, the natural aging process does begin to make those things more difficult. And how our society, or how our communities have been structured, either with or without sidewalks and traffic signals that may be a lot better for freshmen in college than for a senior citizen begin to point out a big issue here. That is, as a nation we are not prepared for the very success, the greatest success of the past century - that is longer life.

"And so," he concludes, "the transportation issue points to a larger question of how will we work, how will we play, how will we get around, how will we live tomorrow now that we live longer?"

This is a dilemma that will only intensify, warns Coughlin, down the road.

"With aging baby boomers rapidly turning 50 and…soon 60 and soon 70 over the next 20 or 30 years, you're talking about an age group numbering somewhere between 70 and 80 million people," he explains. "One in five people being at least over 65 in 20 years. And so older drivers, we look at them today as a driver that may be a problem. Very soon, all of us will be looking at ourselves."

Back in Arizona, Myrtle Manville hopes it never happens to her. The proposed new law there to test older drivers has died in the face of political opposition, just as in Florida. That's fine with Myrtle Manville, who speaks for many of her contemporaries when she describes her plan to stop driving.

"Don't intend to," she says. "Then I'm gonna be gone. That's the end of my life. I can't imagine being without wheels. I just can't. I just think - it's so nice just to run out the door and get in your car and go where you want to go."

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  • David Hancock

    David Hancock is a home page editor for