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“Based on voting records, people would rather drive than vote”

An interesting piece from the New York Times on the growing problem of handling older drivers who shouldn’t be behind the wheel. It’s quite striking how people, in the U.S. at least, take driving to be some kind of inalienable right — rather than possessing the ability to operate heavy machinery in a safe manner.

“How am I going to tell a guy who fought for this country and has two Purple Hearts that I am going to take away his license and take away his freedom?” one police chief asked at the conference.”

Story here or after the jump…

The New York Times
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October 12, 2008
Aging | White Plains
When Taking the Keys to the Car Turns Real
By KATE STONE LOMBARDI

White Plains

EVERYBODY had a story to tell about trying to take the keys from an elderly driver. Paul K. Schwarz, a retired Scarsdale Middle School teacher, described meeting with angry resistance from his father, Herbert, every time he brought up the subject of driving.

“My dad was born in 1907 in White Plains,” Mr. Schwarz said. “He would have been 101 and he might have made it, because he took really good care of himself, but his one real blind spot literally was the car.”

There were small accidents, tickets and excuses — the senior Mr. Schwarz once claimed that a police officer must have been colorblind to ticket him for running a red light. Another time he blamed a faulty brake pedal for an accident. After he exited his driveway in reverse and crashed into a tree, Mr. Schwarz lost his insurance. Undaunted, he looked in the Yellow Pages and got reinsured.

Paul Schwarz and his brother tried unsuccessfully to get their father’s doctor to intervene. They even talked about disabling their father’s car but ran out of time. His last accident, on the Hutchinson River Parkway, landed him for eight weeks in the intensive care unit, where he died in 1997 at the age of 90.

“It was an awful two months,” said Mr. Schwarz, who is involved with several nonprofit groups that work with the elderly. He was speaking at a recent conference here for Westchester police commissioners and chiefs, part of an effort to address the issue of older drivers in the county.

Ken Donato, the police chief in Ossining, recalled reporting a 90-year-old military veteran who worked in his building to the Department of Motor Vehicles, but not until after the elderly man had had three accidents in three weeks, one of which totaled Chief Donato’s car.

Even County Executive Andrew J. Spano shared the story of his father, who called to see if his politically connected son could arrange for the Department of Motor Vehicles to cut him some slack on his eye examination. Mr. Spano refused and then asked his father how he was managing to drive if he had trouble seeing.

“And he says, ‘Your mother tells me what the sign says,’ ” Mr. Spano said. “I went to the house, and I took the keys away. He didn’t speak to me for two months.”

These experiences have a familiar ring to adult children of elderly drivers. They were shared at the conference, developed by the Older Driver Family Assistance Network, which is part of the county’s Department of Senior Programs and Services.

“Westchester County is among the three leading counties in New York State that provide a good and practical action plan for dealing with older drivers,” said Tamar Freund, manager for the State Department of Motor Vehicles’ newly created Office of the Older Driver.

More than 20 percent of Westchester’s population is older than 60, and the fastest growing segment comprises people older than 85. Statewide, one in seven drivers is 65 or older.

Elderly drivers are not inherently unsafe but have a wide range of abilities, Ms. Freund said.

Dr. Cathryn Devons, director of geriatrics at Phelps Memorial Hospital in Sleepy Hollow, said that aging can affect response time, depth perception, tolerance for alcohol, and, in cases of dementia, judgment. Medications can compound such issues.

A chart distributed at the conference that graphs the driver fatality rate is shaped like a U, with 16-year-olds at one peak and drivers 85 and older at the other. (Elderly drivers are frailer, compounding the mortality rate.)

Police officers described elderly drivers who appeared confused and lost or could not negotiate curves in the road and drove onto lawns or did not notice an officer’s flashing lights for more than a mile or appeared to be drunken drivers, but after being pulled over were found to be simply disoriented.

In a survey of 21 Westchester police officers conducted in 2007 by the Older Driver Network, all of them said they had observed older drivers in their community who they believed were at risk of an accident. More than 90 percent said they had seen accidents caused by older drivers who were unaware of traffic surrounding them, and 76 percent said they had encountered older drivers who could not see signs.

With such obvious risks to themselves and public safety, moving elderly drivers off the road would seem to be an obvious solution. But even police officers can be hesitant to act, particularly if the driver reminds the officer of his or her own grandparent.

“How am I going to tell a guy who fought for this country and has two Purple Hearts that I am going to take away his license and take away his freedom?” one police chief asked at the conference.

New York State does not mandate that elderly drivers be retested. An older driver may be subject to license review, but only after a written report from a police officer, medical professional or concerned citizen. Most requests for reviews come from police officers, said Frank Vega, a license examiner in the Yonkers District Office of the State Department of Motor Vehicles.

Not only do families hesitate to report their loved ones, but doctors and occupational therapists are also torn between their ethical responsibility to protect public safety and their duty to protect patient confidentiality. In short, they worry about liability. “If I make a report to the D.M.V., I’m not protected,” said Kathleen Golisz, an associate professor of occupational therapy at Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry. “What I do instead is say, ‘It’s in your medical chart, and it could be summoned in a court of law.’ ”

At the conference for police chiefs, cue cards were distributed to be given to officers throughout the county. They included a checklist on identifying at-risk older drivers, procedures for documenting the encounter and local resources to help elderly drivers.

The county’s Family Caregiver Support Program can help families begin a conversation with older drivers about their abilities and can make referrals to driver evaluation programs. The group also offers transportation to doctor’s appointments, grocery stores and other destinations, said Mary Edgar-Herrera, the program administrator. She noted that in the suburbs, where public transportation is limited, there was a risk of elderly people becoming isolated when they lose access to their cars.

Westchester has also initiated a “Car Fit” program, where experts evaluate whether an elderly driver’s car is properly adjusted and recommend changes and adaptations. For instance, with some couples, the husband may have been the sole driver for 40 years. His wife may then take over the driving, but never readjust the seat or mirrors.

The Older Driver network also plans a series of talks this fall at several senior centers and libraries.

The issue is not an easy one to address, the advocates said.

“Based on voting records, people would rather drive than vote,” said Ms. Freund, of the Motor Vehicle Department. “Driving in America is so much tied up with personal identity. We will take action with elderly drivers, but we would rather all these matters be voluntary.”

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This entry was posted on Saturday, October 11th, 2008 at 10:33 am and is filed under Cars, Drivers, Traffic Culture. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

One Response to ““Based on voting records, people would rather drive than vote””

  1. Jack Says:

    After you get unsafe drivers (including seniors, but not limited to them) off the highway, then what do you do? Don’t think you can walk away and declare victory. If people need a ride to the doctor’s, grocery story, pharmacy, movies, etc, what do you think they are going to do? Any solution has to include substitute transportation. If it doesn’t, you can expect people to find a way to drive to where they need to go. Unless there is transportation alternatives provided, you can be sure these unsafe drivers will be driving. Buses and subways are for city people. Mass transportation is sparse in the suburbs and rural areas.

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Traffic Tom Vanderbilt

How We Drive is the companion blog to Tom Vanderbilt’s New York Times bestselling book, Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), published by Alfred A. Knopf in the U.S. and Canada, Penguin in the U.K, and in languages other than English by a number of other fine publishers worldwide.

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Metropolis and Mobile Life
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