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When should elderly stop driving?

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February 19, 2011 | Leave Comment

Herbert Bauer of Davis hangs up his coat after driving for the last time, at age 99. Bauer is featured in "Old People Driving," a film by Shaleece Haas. (Courtesy photo)

The last time he got behind the wheel of a car, Herbert Bauer made his way out of the parking lot at the Davis Senior Center — where he drove himself for lunch every day — and carefully navigated his way through a dozen residential blocks to his home.

It had been a long time since Bauer had been in an auto accident, so he planned to be “super careful not to make any last-minute mistakes” on this, his final drive.

He did fine. He pulled into his driveway unscathed, turned off the ignition, pulled out the key, and sighed.

“This is it,” he said, before slowly climbing out of his car and carefully removing the car key from its place in his wallet. He handed the key over to friend Anne-Marie Tucker Schwab, who would shortly drive the car away for good, and he walked inside his home.

Bauer was 99 years old that day, just weeks away from his 100th birthday, and he had been driving for more than 80 years when he finally decided it was no longer safe to do so. Actually, he may not have been entirely convinced that he should no longer drive, but he wanted to stop “before somebody invites me to,” he said.

The poignancy of Bauer’s last drive is captured in the documentary, “Old People Driving,” released last year to great acclaim at film festivals and screenings around the country. The film will be shown in Davis on Thursday at the Veterans’ Memorial Theater in a benefit for the Davis Senior Center. Bauer himself, who recently celebrated his 101st birthday, will attend the event, as will the filmmaker, Shaleece Haas.

The need to focus on an aging population and their presence on the road has never been greater. The first wave of baby boomers are just reaching retirement age and their ranks will only continue to swell.

“Twenty percent of us will be 65 or older in 20 years,” noted Charley Fenner, a senior ombudsman for the California Department of Motor Vehicles and 74 years old himself. “It’s a reality that if we live long enough, most of us will live seven to 10 years beyond our safe driving years. And hardly a day goes by that we don’t get a few calls from sons and daughters who say, ‘I’m not sure mom or dad should be driving anymore.’ ”

When to stop

Just WHEN someone should stop driving is not necessarily black and white, experts say, and health is usually more of a factor than age. But statistics do provide some clues.

According to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, drivers ages 85 and older are more likely to die in a crash than any other age group. Part of that increased fatality rate is due to their own frailty, which makes recovering from injuries suffered in a car crash more difficult than it is for younger drivers. Older drivers are actually less likely to kill others on the road than the youngest drivers are.

But AAA also reports that around age 70, a driver’s risk to himself and others begins to rise, and that risk increases more rapidly after the age of 75. The normal aging processes that affect driving include a slowdown in response time, a loss of clarity in vision and hearing, a loss of muscle strength and flexibility, and a reduction in the ability to focus or concentrate.

But just taking the keys away from someone deemed no longer safe on the road can be an emotional process.

“For seniors, driving is their independence,” said Elaine Musser, vice chair of the Davis Senior Citizens Commission. “How do they get to the grocery store? How do they get to the doctor? The three most important issues to seniors are health, housing and transportation, and the last one is key because it keeps them from being isolated in their homes.”

Fenner and Musser both stress the importance of seniors exploring alternative transportation before the day comes when they have to turn over the car keys.

“I tell seniors all the time when they’re still doing OK driving to go out and ride public transportation so they’ll know what’s going on,” Fenner said.

He adds, though, that the quality and accessibility of public transportation certainly varies from place to place in California, and it can sometimes be downright unsafe for seniors.

Transportation options

Not so in Davis, though, says Musser.

“Davis has excellent options,” she said.

Those options include Unitrans — which is free to residents 60 and over — as well as Davis Community Transit, which is reserved for the disabled. Then there are the miles and miles of pedestrian and bicycle paths.

But Musser singles out Unitrans and its general manager Geoff Straw, in particular, for the lengths they go to in accommodating seniors.

“They are amazing,” she said. “As the bus pulls up to the curb, you can signal with your hand and the driver can lower the bus to curb level so there’s no problem getting up the step. And (Straw) has offered to bring a Unitrans bus to the Senior Center however many times is necessary to teach seniors how to use it.”

After all, she noted, “seniors feel intimated about taking the bus. How do I get up the stairs? What if I get stranded?”

Musser went along for the ride on one of Straw’s demonstrations, accompanying about 30 seniors on a Unitrans bus.

“We all got on and Geoff showed us where several bus stops are, how to pull the cord to stop the bus, how you can talk to the driver about getting directions.”

The end result of that ride, she said, was folks no longer feeling intimidated.

Another option for older drivers — besides giving up driving altogether — is a provisional driver’s license that limits where and when they drive.

“Most of us do that ourselves anyway,” Fenner noted. “If we don’t feel comfortable driving at night, we don’t. If we don’t feel comfortable on the freeway, we don’t drive there.

“At the DMV, we can get it down to virtually to and from the grocery store, or to the doctor’s office,” he explained. “It meets their needs and allows them to be mobile. And that’s the direction we’re going in.”

Family talks

Family members can help with that as well. Musser described having conversations with her own parents, encouraging her father to avoid the freeway and driving at night, even avoiding left-hand turns by turning right and going all the way around the block to get where he needs to go.

“There are also gadgets that are great for seniors,” Musser noted. “OnStar, back-up warnings.”

But in the end, when even limited driving becomes no longer safe, it’s often up to family members to intervene, especially when, as sometimes happens, an older driver is in denial.

“The saddest part is when (a senior) doesn’t recognize it and no one steps in,” leading to a tragic result, said DMV ombudsman Julio Lacayo.

One such result: the case of George Weller, then 86, who killed 10 people and injured more than 70 when he drove his Buick Le Sabre into a crowded farmers market in Santa Monica in 2003, an event portrayed in “Old People Driving.”

Musser stressed the importance of prevention.

“Some seniors will figure it out, say ‘I don’t feel safe driving anymore,’ ” Musser said. “Other seniors won’t. It’s the ones that won’t that you have to worry about.

“If you see a loved one is getting to that point,” Musser said, “you may have to rat them out to the DMV.”

Bauer, for one, didn’t let it get to that point. But giving up driving wasn’t easy either.

“Not to be able to leave your house whenever you’d like to is a difficult thing,” he says near the end of the film.

As he flipped through photographs of his late wife Hanna, he added, “I am telling myself that to give up such trivialities as driving is nothing compared to giving up someone you love.”

“Old People Driving” will be shown at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Veterans’ Memorial Theater, 203 E. 14th St. Tickets are $10 each and may be purchased at the Davis Senior Center, 646 A St. Following the 25-minute film will be a presentation by the senior commission on alternatives to driving for seniors.

– Reach Anne Ternus-Bellamy at aternus@davisenterprise.net or (530) 747-8051. Comment on this story at www.davisenterprise.com

Anne Ternus-Bellamy

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