“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

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.”

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. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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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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Upcoming Talks

April 9, 2008.
California Office of Traffic Safety Summit
San Francisco, CA.

May 19, 2009
University of Minnesota Center for Transportation Studies
Bloomington, MN

June 23, 2009
Driving Assessment 2009
Big Sky, Montana

June 26, 2009
PRI World Congress
Rotterdam, The Netherlands

June 27, 2009
Day of Architecture
Utrecht, The Netherlands

July 13, 2009
Association of Transportation Safety Information Professionals (ATSIP)
Phoenix, AZ.

August 12-14
Texas Department of Transportation “Save a Life Summit”
San Antonio, Texas

September 2, 2009
Governors Highway Safety Association Annual Meeting
Savannah, Georgia

September 11, 2009
Oregon Transportation Summit
Portland, Oregon

October 8
Honda R&D Americas
Raymond, Ohio

October 10-11
INFORMS Roundtable
San Diego, CA

October 21, 2009
California State University-San Bernardino, Leonard Transportation Center
San Bernardino, CA

November 5
Southern New England Planning Association Planning Conference
Uncasville, Connecticut

January 6
Texas Transportation Forum
Austin, TX

January 19
Yale University
(with Donald Shoup; details to come)

Monday, February 22
Yale University School of Architecture
Eero Saarinen Lecture

Friday, March 19
University of Delaware
Delaware Center for Transportation

April 5-7
University of Utah
Salt Lake City
McMurrin Lectureship

April 19
International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association (Organization Management Workshop)
Austin, Texas

Monday, April 26
Edmonton Traffic Safety Conference
Edmonton, Canada

Monday, June 7
Canadian Association of Road Safety Professionals
Niagara Falls, Ontario

Wednesday, July 6
Fondo de Prevención Vial
Bogotá, Colombia

Tuesday, August 31
Royal Automobile Club
Perth, Australia

Wednesday, September 1
Australasian Road Safety Conference
Canberra, Australia

Wednesday, September 22

Wisconsin Department of Transportation’s
Traffic Incident Management Enhancement Program
Statewide Conference
Wisconsin Dells, WI

Wednesday, October 20
Rutgers University
Center for Advanced Infrastructure and Transportation
Piscataway, NJ

Tuesday, March 8, 2011
Ontario Injury Prevention Resource Centre
Injury Prevention Forum

Monday, May 2
Idaho Public Driver Education Conference
Boise, Idaho

Tuesday, June 2, 2011
California Association of Cities
Costa Mesa, California

Sunday, August 21, 2011
American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators
Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Wednesday, October 26, 2011
Attitudes: Iniciativa Social de Audi
Madrid, Spain

April 16, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Gardens Theatre, QUT
Brisbane, Australia

April 17, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Centennial Plaza, Sydney
Sydney, Australia

April 19, 2012
Institute for Sensible Transport Seminar
Melbourne Town Hall
Melbourne, Australia

January 30, 2013
University of Minnesota City Engineers Association Meeting
Minneapolis, MN

January 31, 2013
Metropolis and Mobile Life
School of Architecture, University of Toronto

February 22, 2013
ISL Engineering
Edmonton, Canada

March 1, 2013
Australian Road Summit
Melbourne, Australia

May 8, 2013
New York State Association of
Transportation Engineers
Rochester, NY

August 18, 2013 “Ingenuity” Conference
San Francisco, CA

September 26, 2013
TransComm 2013
(Meeting of American Association
of State Highway and Transportation
Officials’ Subcommittee on Transportation
Grand Rapids MI



October 2008

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