Elderly Drivers: Not Ready to Give Up the Keys

We should all be as lucky as Myrtle Manville. Turning 95, she's got her health, her family, her friends, days full of activity in Sun City (Arizona), and absolutely no intention of giving up her car.

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

For the majority of seniors, getting behind the wheel is perhaps the activity that most maintains their sense of independence while age conspires to rob them of it in so many other ways.

"I like to be free to do what I have to do and not have to be dependent on somebody. I think I would hate that," says Manville.

Not to mention that Myrtle, like so many older Americans, has no mass transit in her neighborhood.

"We really need wheels. Otherwise we're gonna waste so much time waiting around for people to pick us up and take us there. And in fact, if I had to do that I probably wouldn't go," says Manville.

But in a state where one out of five 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--painted by a kind of broad brush from media reports of elderly drivers who have caused fatal accidents.

"It's a matter of safety. Do you want drivers out there that can't control their vehicle?" says state representative Mike Gleason.

Gleason, 74 himself, 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 2 years.

"Sooner or later--it has to be done. And this is not just an Arizona problem. It's a nationwide problem," says Gleason.

Right now 32 states 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 teenagers. And while fatality rates are dropping in all other age groups--including teens--older-driver deaths are on the rise.

And nowhere is it worse than in Florida, which leads the country in older-driver deaths. An elderly driver in Florida can go 18 years without having his or her vision or hearing tested. That's right: Someone moving to Florida and getting a license at 75 doesn't have to be checked again until they're 93.

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

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

"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," says one elderly resident.

Another woman tells of a 90-year-old man driving and his wife giving him direction: He can't see well. "You go straight. Now, you make a right turn. Now, you make a left--oh, stay straight."

Stories of "accidents waiting to happen" caught Florida State Representative Ron Greenstein's attention, and just like in Arizona, he floated an idea for a law requiring extra senior testing.

"Once a person hits 75," says Greenstein. "Every 4 years they have to go for a vision test and a hearing test."

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

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

Fellow driver Morry Gurwich agrees: "Well, you know, when you take a driver's license away, you take away their life." The Florida retiree may be a touch sensitive about his age. He begins to give his age when asked but then pauses. "Seventy-seven plus, 77--no, none of your business," he says.

But he's also a realist. Which is why he's not waiting for any law to requre extra exams. He's decided on his own to visit a special driver assessment program at Florida Atlantic University.

"I think everybody should be examined when they hit 70 or 75, something like that. They should be examined because there's some . . . You lose something. You lose . . . something in your character changes a little bit too," says Gurwich. "Mental changes, sure," he says. "It is a whole new ballgame, a whole new life."

Here they put Morry through a battery of short exams measuring his vision, strength, reflexes, and cognition.

But he doesn't necessarily think testing like this should be the law. "Understand one thing. This testing I did today, if you take ten people, six of them will fail, and they're gonna be unhappy, because this test is tough," says Gurwich.

Wendy Stav administers the test in Florida and just 5% are asked to stop driving. The majority of 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?'"

Joe Coughlin thinks about fixing the problem for a living. He directs the age lab at MIT.

"Transportation, is a lot more than simply going to the store and going to the doctor's, " Coughlin says. "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.

"We are an aging country. And all of a sudden all those things that we take for granted every day, like driving or cleaning our home, going out shopping--the natural aging process does begin to make thoe 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--begins 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 the transportation issue points to larger questions: How will we work? How will we play? How will we get around? How will we live tomorrow now that we live longer?" says Coughlin.

These are questions that will be asked by even more seniors in the near future.

"With aging baby boomers rapidly turning 50 and--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. 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," says Coughlin.

Gurwich agrees, "Everybody's involved . . . You never know when it's gonna happen to you."

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 like 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. Then I'm gonna be gone. That's the end of my life," she says.

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