They've still got that drive

Seniors’ skills behind the wheel come under scrutiny, but numbers say they’re among the safest on the road

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Mike Jacobson, 90, of Coeur d'Alene, gets into his vehicle Tuesday after a visit to the local senior center. Jacobson, like many seniors, continues to drive on a daily basis.

How does Don McDaniel rate his driving?

"Average, I hope," the 75-year-old said with a laugh.

The Beauty Bay resident hasn't noticed any trouble with slower reflexes or driving handicaps, he said ... But then, it's hard to tell.

He wouldn't object to someone else looking for problems, he said.

Even if that means regularly testing his driving.

"I would hope someone would assist me in that process," McDaniel said of screening for diminishing capabilities. "I think a mandatory driving test could be a good idea. Sometimes people don't realize what's happening with them, and don't see what's actually going on."

Judging the capacity of senior drivers is a sensitive subject.

While some individuals remain deft and careful drivers all their lives, others are at higher risk as they age, becoming more prone to slowing reflexes and problems like vision and hearing loss.

Some situations can be egregious, like 89-year-old Harold Sharpe of Cataldo recently charged with vehicular manslaughter after striking and killing a 15-year-old strolling in a crosswalk on his way to school last September.

A possible solution is taking a proactive route, like pursuing a new law requiring drivers to take regular driving tests after a certain age.

Beefing up licensing standards for senior drivers is something that legislators have discussed, said Rep. Marge Chadderdon, R-Coeur d'Alene.

"It's delicate. But we're all in it together, and we should all care for our safety," she said.

She needs to see more information about driving trends, she said. But she wouldn't mind a law requiring testing every other year for elderly folks with medical problems, especially vision and hearing loss.

Chadderdon recalled an elderly woman she knew who counted the crossroads she drove past because she couldn't read the street signs.

"There's definite vision and hearing (concerns)," Chadderdon said. "There comes a time when it's a privilege to have a drivers license, it isn't a right. And with it goes some of those requirements that you can see and hear, and are alert."

Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d'Alene, said the legislature would have to obtain comprehensive data on the subject before pursuing a new law for senior driving tests.

"There is some point that due to age, drivers are less capable of driving defensively. I don't know that there's a specific age, and I don't know how you make that determination," Goedde said. "Some 90-year-olds are very capable of driving, and there are some 60-year-olds who aren't."

Lt. Stuart Miller with the Kootenai County Sheriff's Department believes mandatory driving tests for seniors aren't needed.

"I think that would just be making a law for a few that would affect a lot more than that unnecessarily," Miller said.

When law enforcement sees elderly drivers posing blatant driving hazards, he said, the officials pull them over, assess the situation and, if necessary, have them take a reevaluation at the DMV.

"Very rarely," Miller said of how often that occurs in Kootenai County. "Those who cause the most accidents statistically are males between 16 and 25. The biggest issue we have is people on cell phones, texting and calling. Normally the elderly aren't too apt in the computer world to do that."

The county also receives about three weekly recommendations from healthcare providers for re-evaluations based on medical problems, he said.

Many older drivers just take themselves off the road.

"When they become that age, they become responsible adults, most of the time," Miller said. "They decide they can't drive on their own, or the family takes over."

According to the Idaho Transportation department, drivers 65 and up are the safest drivers in Idaho.

While representing 15.6 percent of Idaho's driving population, only 8.7 percent of them are the drivers in crashes. Only 8.8 percent are the drivers in fatal and injury crashes. Only 8.5 percent are drivers in aggressive driving crashes.

They have the lowest proportion of intoxication of all drivers involved in fatal crashes.

"Older drivers are safer because they drive less, on shorter trips, primarily during the day," Jeff Stratten, ITD spokesperson, wrote in an e-mail. "They tend to avoid driving in inclement weather and wear their seat belts."

Drivers are limited to a 4-year license at 62, which they can renew by mail. In-person renewal with a vision test is required at 69.

Family members, law enforcement and drivers license examiners can require a driver to take and pass an on-the-road driving test, Stratten said.

"The transportation department believes the current system to monitor senior drivers works well," he said. "The system relies on those who have the most direct contact with senior drivers - their family members and medical providers - to assist in monitoring driving skills and abilities."

Mandatory tests for senior motorists puts a sour taste in Bill Ramich's mouth.

"As I get closer to that age, the less I like that idea," the 69-year-old said with a chuckle.

The Hayden resident still drives about 15,000 miles a year between driving vacations and regular outings, he estimated, and dubs his prowess on the roads as top notch.

"To be honest, I think most (elderly drivers) are more careful than our young drivers," he said. "I see them deliberately racing red lights and talking on their cell phones and texting. I see that several times a day."

Bermae Linderman, 78, drives from Spirit Lake to Coeur d'Alene all the time, she said, and usually picks up four friends along the way.

"Just because you get older, it doesn't mean you lose your abilities," Linderman said. "It's about knowing what you can or can't do. People who aren't aware of their capabilities have no business being behind the wheel."

Helping older drivers be cognizant of their impairments is the aim of Post Falls resident Harold Denton, who runs Assurance Driving Company with Spokane resident Duane Goetz.

They drive one-on-one with geriatric students from North Idaho and Washington and guide them on adapting to handicaps, Denton said.

Folks with limited eyesight should slow down and stick to familiar routes, for instance.

"Anyone at any age can lose ability," Denton said. "Once they recognize they have an impairment, we need people to voluntarily get special instruction. Get new training."

Having a driver's license is a symbol of independence for most elderly drivers, the 66-year-old said, adding that he became trained in instruction to prolong his own driving status.

"When any person, especially an older person, loses that, they lose their freedom and independence," he said. "It impacts the economy, and it impacts the family."

Goetz, a retired Spokane DMV employee who conducted re-examinations, would strongly support a law requiring regular testing for older drivers.

"You have more traffic than ever before. Things have changed for road markings, a lot don't understand what the road markings are anymore," the 67-year-old said. "I would like to see in the states of Idaho and Washington, in every state, that once you get to a certain age bracket you should come in for evaluations every five years."

That requirement should start at age 69, he added.

"Because of my 20 years experience as an examiner, I noticed that bad habits are so engrained (at that point), and they're not willing to change," he said. "I really recommend it."

Mamie Johnson, a volunteer instructor for AARP driving classes in Post Falls, said she is comfortable with most elderly drivers on the road.

The majority of her students attend for an insurance discount, she said, not because they have trouble behind the wheel.

"I think as a general rule, they are more safe, because they're aware of their limitations," Johnson said.

Still, the 69-year-old has some friends she doesn't think should be driving, she acknowledged.

Mandatory driving tests seems a little over the top, she said.

But she wouldn't mind if their capabilities were better analyzed, like the DMV testing their reflexes.

"I do know several people I do wish weren't on the road. But that's not for me to say," Johnson said. "It's for somebody to determine. To clue them in that maybe they should watch what they're doing."

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