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Elderly drivers die at record pace

Cover Story, May 1, 2001ARCADIA, Calif. -- They drive the speed limit, wear their seat belts and rarely take risks behind the wheel.

But elderly drivers are dying at a record pace. Though they don't drive often, seniors account for a disproportionate number of crashes on the nation's roads. And as the numbers surge, officials say, elderly driving deaths will rival drunken driving as the nation's top road threat.

The problem has begun to change the driving experience for all Americans. State and federal agencies are scrambling to make roads safer for seniors by increasing licensing scrutiny, making streets signs larger and erecting more traffic lights, which are easier to see than stop signs.

But even the federal agency charged with safeguarding motorists concedes that it's ill-prepared for the coming surge in senior drivers. The number of drivers older than 65 will more than double to 60 million during the next three decades as baby boomers move into retirement.

"Frankly, I'm concerned whether it's possible to protect them," says John Eberhard, a senior researcher with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). "We don't have a car or safety device that's truly compatible with a frail, elderly body."

That isn't discouraging seniors, who are driving more often and farther than ever before. In a nation where the auto reigns supreme, getting anyone from behind the wheel will be difficult. "I have to have my car," says Bill Tsuchiya, 80, a Los Angeles resident. "I need it to get to the hospital, or see my family, or take my wife to a nice dinner. It's not a luxury. It's a big part of my life."

Driving is critical to seniors, traffic engineer Bill Hairston says. "As much as we like to fool ourselves, grandma doesn't take the car out (just) for a Sunday drive," he says. "She's starting to use it as much as we do, and she is not about to give up that freedom."

A new NHTSA report released to USA TODAY suggests the scope of the problem. Improvements in highway engineering and traffic enforcement have meant good news for virtually all drivers -- except seniors.

Highway deaths for motorists under 65 have dropped 3% since 1995, to 33,659 last year. Among seniors, however, deaths jumped 15% over the same period, to 8,141 last year. During the past two decades, only the fatality rate of senior drivers has risen.

Fatalities among elderly drivers will increase faster than their population, to more than 23,000 annually -- 63 deaths a day -- by 2030, NHTSA estimates.

Analysts expect some increase in crashes among seniors because the nation is aging quickly. From 2010 to 2020, the elderly population is expected to increase by 35%. The overall population will increase 8% over the same time, the Census Bureau says.

But the study finds that elderly drivers account for more than their share of deaths on the road. They make up about 12% of the population, but they account for 18% of those killed on highways. And as seniors become a larger segment of the driving population, their fatality rates could soar.

When seniors crash, Eberhard says, "they suffer the most harm. They don't kill other drivers in accidents. They get killed."

Intersections pose a particular danger. An analysis of accidents by USA TODAY and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety finds that elderly drivers -- defined by NHTSA as those 65 and older -- account for a third of all driver deaths at intersections.

States are struggling for an answer. Florida is enlarging some highway street signs from 12 inches to 36 to accommodate the withering vision of its 2.9 million elderly drivers. Nine states are considering legislation that requires doctors to report serious medical conditions afflicting seniors, such as failing eyesight and heart disease, to motor-vehicle authorities. Officials could then order new driving tests and revoke licenses. Eleven states, including California and Florida, already have such measures.

But taking away licenses isn't a cure-all. Seniors are more likely to be killed as pedestrians than as drivers or occupants in cars.

"If you take them out of their cars and make them walk everywhere, you're going to drive up pedestrian deaths," Eberhard says. "And that's assuming they are physically healthy enough to walk a couple miles to the store."

The left turn

"C'mon, someone let me in," Caroline Bolton pleads, stranded halfway through a left turn on the busiest street here in Arcadia, 20 miles east of Los Angeles. Nervous and peeking over the steering wheel of her Toyota Corolla, Bolton, 81, has been driving since the Truman administration. She's been in one wreck in the past decade. If she hits the speed limit, she lets off the gas.

However, to transportation engineers, safety officials and insurers, Bolton's half-mile drive to Kelly's Coffee and Fudge shop embodies their biggest fear. Bolton begins to make her left turn across Huntington Drive, then realizes she won't beat oncoming traffic. She hits the brakes, allowing a car to pass. She starts, stops, then inches forward as oncoming cars brake. She finishes the turn, oblivious to a chorus of horns.

"Two decades ago, people over 70 typically didn't even keep the car, let alone drive it regularly," says Nancy Warren, an auto industry consultant based in Dallas. "The roads were never designed with seniors in mind."

As visual skills deteriorate, older drivers have increasing difficulty gauging the speed of oncoming cars. "That poses the biggest problem at intersections," says Frank Moretti, spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

According to federal data, there were 5,394 deaths because of crashes at intersections in 1999, the most recent year for which statistics are available. Of those, 1,730, or 32%, were seniors. Nearly half of those seniors died attempting left turns, Hairston says.

That's because in a collision, the elderly motorist is typically the one being struck. "In a left-hand turn, the person getting T-boned is in a lot more danger than the one ramming him," Hairston says. "Even in a head-on collision, the car moving slower is in more danger. And that's nearly always the elderly driver."

When a crash does occur, an older motorist is about 25% more likely to die in the crash than those 55 and younger. Seat belts, air bags and other improvements to cars have proved ineffective in protecting older drivers, particularly those with ailments such as osteoporosis, a weakening of bone density.

"An elderly, frail body is like a house with termites," Eberhard says. "It might look good on the outside, but it might be weak and hollowed inside. Even a slight knock can break the structure. We haven't found a way to protect against that yet."

Physicians blame most intersection crashes on poor depth perception. "If you knew how bad the eyesight of the person driving next to you probably is, you'd be afraid to get on the road," Los Angeles ophthalmologist Robert Maloney says. "Particularly older drivers. I've had patients drive to my office who should be walking with a white cane."

Skeptical that seniors will voluntarily take themselves off the road, lawmakers are requiring others to keep an eye on them. Thirteen states require seniors to renew their licenses more frequently than other drivers. New Mexico requires drivers older than 75 to renew licenses annually; Illinois imposes the requirement on motorists 86 and older.

"There's little argument that the older you get, the worse your vision gets, the slower your reflexes get," says Steven Bell, president of Safer Streets Now, a Dallas-based organization that lobbies for stricter regulations of teen and senior drivers. "What is the problem with taking a driver's test? If you are a safe driver, you keep your license. "

Opponents say such laws constitute age discrimination. "Why should we be punished for growing old?" says Mitchell Franklin, 81, of Evanston, Ill. "I drive better than my grandson, but I'm the one who has to go keep proving myself."

Indeed, some seniors drive into their 90s without any physical or cognitive impairments. Others should be off the road before 65.

"It's a thorny issue," says Nancy Thompson, a spokeswoman for AARP, which works with state legislatures to develop elderly driving and licensing programs. "There really isn't one test that can determine if a senior citizen is going to get into a crash." The group is formerly known as the American Association of Retired Persons.

Back to school

The dangers of the road are not lost on the elderly. And many, such as Jay Chenault, are addressing the issue themselves.

The 81-year-old resident of Los Angeles is one of a legion of drivers attending AAA's "Mature Driving Class," a course on everything from mixing medications to remembering to turn the high beams off.

It has been more than half a century since Chenault took driver's education. He started driving when he was 10, in his father's Model T. "You ever been in one?" the former baker asks. "They got three gas pedals: forward, reverse, and neutral. That was a car."

Today he drives a pickup, albeit nervously. "I see these young guys, zipping in and out of the lanes so fast. It's crazy."

A component of AAA's course is to infuse seniors with a little contemporary attitude behind the wheel. "One thing we try to teach them is to speed up every once in a while," instructor Frank Stewart says. "You've got to hit the gas when you're merging onto a freeway, or maneuver out of the way if someone is tailgating."

By some measures, seniors are safe drivers. More than 70% of older drivers wear seat belts, the highest percentage among all driving categories. They receive the fewest moving violations.

But that conservative behavior isn't always a positive. Stewart says a disproportionate number of elderly driving accidents involve rear-end collisions because seniors refuse to exceed the speed limit. "We're trying to teach them to change their ways, which isn't easy," he says.

Changing roads

The Federal Highway Administration plans to accommodate him. The agency recently released its Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices, a guidebook cities use to design everything from street signs to crosswalks.

It contains recommendations geared to protecting the elderly. They include:

* Enlarging letters on street signs from 4 inches tall to 6 inches.

* Installing more traffic lights so the elderly can better manage turns at busy intersections. Engineers estimate that during the next five years, sections of Phoenix, Las Vegas and Dallas will see a 10% increase in the number of signals.

* Building "rescue islands" in the middle of wide streets so elderly pedestrians don't have to cross in one signal cycle.

"We don't want to impede traffic flow too much," NHTSA's Eberhard says. "But safety has to be the top priority."

Caroline Bolton appreciates the concern, but she says it's not necessary. "I drive fine," she harrumphs, noting that until 1990, when she was 70, she held a pilot's license and flew a single-engine Piper Cub. Today she shuttles her husband, who uses a wheelchair, to and from the hospital.

Because of his condition, Bolton received a blue handicapped placard. But she rarely whips out "bluey" unless there's no parking at the mall or the bakery, where she is now headed for lunch.

"We don't need special treatment," she says, grabbing her coat and purse. "They should watch out for those kids driving. They're the dangerous ones. As long as I'm careful and feel good, no one is going to stop me from driving."

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