Elderly California Driver, 100, Hurts 11 Children and 3 Adults Backing Up Car: When is Safety An Issue with Older Drivers?

We all remember the freedom, the thrill, the excitement of getting our driver’s license as young people, and with it the wonderful realization that we could go anywhere, anytime, as long as we had wheels.

That exhilaration and freedom doesn’t go away as we get older, but unfortunately, our skills can deteriorate as we age, slowing our reaction times and reflexes and causing our eyesight and other senses to weaken.

It can create a dilemma for our loved ones and for government agencies – no one wants to pull driver’s licenses from older drivers without good reason, but older drivers can sometimes put themselves and others in danger by driving when their vehicle operating skills are no longer safe.

The issue was highlighted this week when a 100-year-old man in South Los Angeles accidentally struck 11 school children and three adults as he backed his car up across from a school shortly after he children were dismissed for the day, according to a story in The Los Angeles Times.

The issue of elderly drivers on the roads is again in the news. Image credit: © iStockphoto.com/dszc

The victims, who ranged in age from 14-months-old to 48-years-old, were struck Aug. 29 by a Cadillac being driven by Preston Carter, who will turn 101 on Sept. 1, the story reported. The driver has a current driver’s license and no history of traffic violations, the California Department of Motor Vehicles told The Times. “Los Angeles Police Department traffic detectives were looking at whether Carter mistakenly hit his accelerator pedal instead of the brake shortly before he rammed into the crowd about 2:30 p.m.”

Three of the children remained hospitalized on Aug. 30, but were expected to recover, according to a story from The Associated Press.

Police believe that the driver simply made a “miscalculation,” a police officer told The Times. Carter allegedly told police that his “brakes had failed.”

Luckily for everyone involved, no one was killed in this incident, which certainly could have been far more tragic.

But as it stands, it again brings to light the delicate issue of older drivers and when and how to decide if their declining skills mean that they should no longer be legally permitted to drive.

Several similar incidents occurred in the Philadelphia area in late 2011. Last December, an 80-year-old woman in Pennsville, N.J., rammed into an optician’s office that she was visiting when she hit the gas by mistake, while last November, an 84-year-old woman plowed into the Once Again Thrift Shop in Berks County, striking two toddlers, according to reports from The Philadelphia Inquirer. In another crash last November, a 79-year-old woman died when she drove off Route 73 and into a Marlton pond.

And in September 2011, an 89-year-old Haverford man killed his daughter and injured his wife when he ran them over in his driveway after he accidentally pressed the wrong foot pedal in his car, the Inquirer reported. In July 2011, an 85-year-old man drove his big Mercury Grand Marquis into a fast food restaurant at 8th and Market streets in Philadelphia, injuring six people inside the restaurant.

After this week’s crash, Carter’s daughter told news reporters that he will no longer be driving and will give his car away, according to a story by CNN.com. He didn’t have a history of any prior traffic violations on his driving record.

It is a difficult thing to tell someone who has been driving for decades that they should no longer continue to drive for safety reasons, but it is a necessary step at the appropriate time for many elderly drivers.

In Pennsylvania, drivers over 65 years of age must renew their driver’s licenses every two years by law, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).  And by law, doctors and other medical personnel who are authorized to diagnose or treat disorders and disabilities such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, dementia and other debilitating conditions, must report such cases to PennDOT in writing so that the cases of those individuals are investigated, according to the NHTSA. Physicians and other medical personnel are given immunity from civil or criminal actions involving such drivers as long as they report such cases when they come to their attention.

To discuss the issue, PennDOT has created several online resources to help educate older drivers and their families about how to analyze and approach the matter together. PennDOT’s JustDrivePA.org Web site offers safety tips for older drivers, as well as warning signs for when older drivers should stop driving.

“Since driving is such a critical form of transportation for the older driver, it is also a very difficult decision to make,” the Web site states. “There is no clear cut factor to look at in terms of stopping driving; however, PennDOT continually seeks to balance the safety of our roadways with the impact of loss of independence, autonomy, and mobility of the older driver.”

Some of the safety tips include:

  • Having regular eye and medical exams to ensure that near and distance vision is adequate to drive safely.
  • Aging eyes become more sensitive to bright light and glare, so limit nighttime driving and try to avoid looking directly into headlights of approaching vehicles.
  • Avoid stressful driving situations such as rush hour travel, driving at night or driving in bad weather. Plan trips for daytime hours after 9 a.m. and before 5 p.m. to avoid rush hour traffic. Plan ahead. Know your route and try to stay on familiar roads.
  • Avoid travelling in bad weather, if at all possible.
  • Avoid taking medications before driving. Many medications, prescription and over-the-counter, cause drowsiness and can affect safe driving.
  • Make sure your driver’s seat and mirrors are properly adjusted prior to beginning a trip.
  • Maintain a safe speed and look ahead. Controlling your speed and looking down the road for possible hazards allow you to make adjustments before encountering a problem.
  • Always keep a safe distance from the vehicle ahead of you. A four-second gap between your vehicle and the vehicle in front of you is recommended.
  • When driving long distances, especially in winter, call ahead for weather and road condition updates.

Signs that it may be time for an elderly person to stop driving include:

  • Feeling uncomfortable, nervous or fearful when driving.
  • Unexplained dents and scrapes on the car, fences, mailboxes, garage doors, etc.
  • Frequent “close calls” (i.e. almost crashing).
  • Getting lost.
  • Slowed response to unexpected situations.
  • Being easily distracted or having a hard time concentrating while driving.
  • Difficulty staying in the lane of traffic.
  • Trouble paying attention to signals, road signs and pavement markings.
  • Trouble judging gaps in traffic at intersections or highway entrance/exit ramps.
  • Medical conditions or medications which may be affecting abilities to handle a car safely.
  • Frequent traffic tickets or “warnings” by traffic or law enforcement officers in the last two years.

Organizations such as the AAA (American Automobile Association) offer self-assessment tools for older drivers, including this self-rating form which can help an older driver realistically evaluate his or her motor vehicle skills.

There are even PennDOT-approved Basic and Refresher Mature Driver Improvement courses which are offered throughout the Commonwealth by AAA, AARP and by Seniors for Safe Driving.

Pennsylvania also has a Mature Drivers Task Force (MDTF), which was established in 2000 to ensure that mature drivers and pedestrians in Pennsylvania are safe and feel safe while traveling the state’s highways and interstates. “Mobility is essential to everyone’s quality of life,” according to the task force. “The loss of mobility can be devastating to the lives of older Pennsylvanians, and most of us want to drive for as long as we safely can. Many older people are capable, and have a lifetime of valuable driving experience behind them to draw upon.”

PennDOT has also put together a useful pamphlet, “Talking With Older Drivers: A Guide for Family and Friends,” to assist family members or friends when it is time to discuss these issues with elderly drivers in their lives.

It’s a touchy, difficult subject to bridge with the older drivers in our lives.

But it’s a discussion that we must have to protect older drivers who might be at risk, as well as other drivers, pedestrians and others in society who stand to be harmed by elderly persons who are no longer safe vehicle operators.

It’s a talk that every family needs to have with parents and older relatives as they age. We have to help make the difficult decision with our older relatives.

Compassion, understanding, love and concern are all a part of the discussion. It is not easy, but when the time comes, it is for the safety of everyone involved.

This has been a public service message from MyPhillyLawyer. When Winning Matters Most, Call MyPhillyLawyer.