Does getting old mean causing more accidents? Locals say no.
Thursday, January 14, 1999
"If you''re old, everyone thinks you''re at fault," says Neill Gardner of Monterey, who at 81, drives "a lot" and has had no accidents.
Statistics show "everyone" may be wrong. Californians over 65 make up just over 12 percent of the state''s almost 21 million drivers. Yet in 1997, the same group of drivers accounted for 11.6 percent of fatal collisions and only 7.4 percent of injury collisions.
No statistics are available for Monterey County or for 1998, but California Highway Patrol Officer Rolf Trondsen believes this area mirrors state figures. "I don''t think we have more accidents," says Trondsen of Monterey area drivers over 65. "There are a lot of accidents during the daily commute, but most morning accidents are not retired people. It''s mostly people in their 20s to 50s on the way to work."
According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, however, the odds for elderly drivers are grim: Elderly drivers are more likely to get traffic citations for failing to yield, turning improperly, and running stop signs and red lights. Multiple-vehicle accidents at intersections increase markedly with age. People age 75 and older have more vehicle deaths per 100,000 people than any age group except people under 25. Fatal crash rates rise sharply for licensed drivers 70 and older. The elderly are more likely to die from their injuries because they are more susceptible to medical complications following injuries. But insurance rates are often lower because older drivers drive fewer miles.
"There are things older drivers should be aware of," says Victoria Powers, traffic safety consultant with the California State Automobile Association. "Vision is not quite as acute, reaction time is slower. The older driver needs to be more of a defensive driver, aware of everyone else on the road. We should all be aware."
In addition to physical changes caused by aging, the American Automobile Association (AAA) and Trondsen both caution older drivers to know side effects of medications--many can dull reflexes and blur vision. Prescription and over-the-counter medications can interact to cause serious effects that neither medication would cause if taken alone. Even foods can interact with medications, affecting how a driver may feel and react.
The aging process begins gradually, states AAA. Changes occur more rapidly after age 55 and begin to affect driving performance by age 60. Nevertheless, people 65 and older prefer to drive, states AAA, and take more than 80 percent of trips in their own cars. According to AAA, in 20 years, 50 million Americans will be 65 or older and at least 90 percent of them will be licensed to drive.
"A lot of studies are going on," says Powers. "Insurance companies are more liberal now. A lot depends on driving records and age. Each state has its own laws regarding renewing drivers'' licenses. There is a lot of controversy," she adds, "whether (older drivers) should have to take a test or renew automatically. It''s not black and white."
Losing a driver''s license is a big fear among older drivers, says Kalah Bumba, gerontologist and director of the Area Agency on Aging. "So is taking the test. If they lose their license, they lose their independence. They''re aware of their deficits but want to remain mobile, to go to the grocery store, get their hair done."
Part of the problem, she explains, is that a lot of people live outside cities. "Our community has less-than-ideal services for seniors," she says, noting the lack of alternate door-to-door transportation services.
California doesn''t limit drivers'' licenses based on age, reports Ida Padron, manager of licensing at the Department of Motor Vehicles in Salinas, but does have a different procedure for drivers older than 70. "They are no longer eligible for renewal by mail, but must retake the test and the vision test. If they don''t meet the vision requirements," says Padron, "they are put on a limited term and may have to come back more often."
The term of the license, she explains, is determined by a driving examiner, based on a driving test and doctor''s vision report and recommendation for re-testing frequency.
Padron also recommends older drivers take a class. "Over time, drivers forget the particulars of driving, like looking over your shoulder to change lanes or back up. They mostly use their mirrors," she says.
"When you''re forced into quitting driving, you can''t live like you want or are used to," says Bruce Kaltenbach, 65, of Monterey, who''s been teaching safe driving classes for three years to mature drivers who hope they never have to stop driving. The course is 55 Alive, a classroom driver improvement course designed for drivers age 50 and older by the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP). The best reason to take the course, says Kaltenbach, is "pure greed. You get a discount on insurance if you have a good driving record and take the class."
The course covers driving problems and how to avoid them as well as physiological effects of aging, such as vision, hearing and reaction time, and how to compensate. "Chronological age," notes Kaltenbach, "doesn''t always affect ability to drive."
Dr. Will Light, 72, of Monterey, has taken the class and agrees. "It depends on how much aging there is after age 65."
The classes like Kaltenbach''s cover things like the three-second rule between cars, entering and exiting freeways, scanning the road instead of just watching the car ahead of you, seat belts and air bags and caring for your car to keep it safe. California Highway Patrol''s Trondsen teaches part of the safe driving course.
For seniors who are no longer able to drive, some services are available through organizations like the Alliance on Aging, whose Friendly Visitor program provides escort services for those who don''t drive anymore, reports Barbie Rasmussen, executive director. The program operates with volunteers from all over the county.
"We don''t realize how much it means to be able to get in the car and go someplace," says Rasmussen. "We don''t live close to things and it has a huge effect on people''s lives when they can''t drive anymore." cw