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Older drivers are safer, data show

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Published:   |   Updated: March 19, 2013 at 02:47 AM
TAMPA -

On Tuesday afternoon, a 100-year-old Apollo Beach man drove his Buick into the path of a motorcycle on U.S. 41, slightly injuring himself and leaving the motorcyclist hospitalized in serious condition.

Less than 20 minutes later, an 80-year-old woman crashed into a Chinese restaurant in Dunedin, injuring two people and demolishing much of the front of the building. She told deputies she had mistaken the gas pedal for the brake.

The accidents will undoubtedly reinforce the perception among many about older motorists' susceptibility to crashes. Comparative data, though, show the accidents in a different light.

Motorists 80 or older had a crash rate of 90 per 10,000 licensed drivers in 2010, compared with 347 crashes per 10,000 drivers for those ages 15 to 24, figures from the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles show.

"I think the elderly are safe in driving," said Cpl. Troy Morgan, operations officer for the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office. "I agree with those who focus on a person's cognitive ability. Their eyesight changes, their reflexes slow down, but they drive a little lower than the speed limit."

Although the elderly may drive fewer miles than younger motorists, skewing comparative crash data, what is certain is that the number of post-retirement age people in Florida with driver's licenses is growing rapidly.

The number of Floridians 71 or older with licenses increased by nearly 100,000 in the past five years to more than 1.8 million, state records show.

The number of licensed drivers 90 and older has grown by nearly 28 percent statewide since 2007, to nearly 65,000. Hillsborough County's growth has been even higher; the county's 2,246 licensed drivers 90 or older marks a 38 percent increase since 2007.

The Florida Highway Patrol says there are more than 455 licensed drivers in Florida 100 or older, 16 of them in Hillsborough County, 39 in Pinellas.

Those trends have encouraged numerous initiatives on the part of government agencies, academicians and groups such as AAA and AARP to conduct research and develop programs to improve safety among the elderly, who want to maintain their mobility opportunities.

"Chronological age tells you nothing about an individual's ability to drive," said Jerri Edwards, a professor in the University of South Florida School of Aging Studies who has conducted research for 15 years on how to help older adults remain safe drivers.

"What's more important is how they perform cognitively — mental quickness, speed of processing, visual attention, the ability to pay attention to multiple things at the same time and to ignore distractions."

Edwards' research is among studies that underlie a AAA Foundation For Traffic Safety Program, which offers a free orientation session at drivesharp.positscience.com.

The test requires participants to focus on images of two tiny vehicles flashed briefly on the center of the computer screen and at points on the periphery. The task is to identify which of the similar vehicle images — one is a car and the other a truck — was briefly flashed in the center of the screen and where on the edge of the screen the second image appeared.

Participants are rated on whether they're an at-risk driver. The premise is that one's brain begins to slow slightly about age 30. Over time, it takes the brain longer to process information and ignore distractions.

"Even if your brain is just a few milliseconds slower at taking these steps, it can mean the difference between reacting in time to avoid a car crash," the AAA program states.

AAA and a private firm, PositScience, offer a $49 online follow-up course, "DriveSharp brain fitness," to improve the steps of sensing, deciding and acting required in driving. Neither Edwards nor USF benefit financially from the AAA program.

"Tests are not a perfect predictor of risks, but provide very sensitive screening and a potential for risks," said Edwards, who is seeking participants 65 and older for a long-term USF cognitive training project. More information is available at agingstudies.cbcs.usf.edu/brainfitness.

Neither Florida nor other states require sophisticated screening for elderly or other motorists, despite the availability of such tests, and the requirements for getting a license don't change much with age.

The most substantive difference is that Florida requires a vision test for drivers older than 79. Those 79 and younger get licenses issued for eight years, while those 80 and older get a six-year license.

The state says it trains driver's-license examiners to observe applicants and evaluate whether someone's driving ability is questionable for medical, physical, mental or visual reasons.

Physicians who suspect driver impairment are required to report that to the state, and law enforcement can request a re-exam of a driver on a crash citation.

The state's Florida GrandDriver program has a form at www.flhsmv.gov for the public to file a confidential report on medically impaired drivers they think might pose a public safety threat.

Fatal crash rates increase per mile traveled starting at age 75 and increase notably at age 80, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports. But older drivers tend to limit driving during bad weather and are less likely to drink and drive than other adults.

Older motorists also are likely to drive far fewer miles a year than younger drivers, and some may retain a license primarily as a means of identification.

"I have a feeling a lot of older people are more cautious when they drive than when they were 20 years old or so," said Tampa resident Bill Krusen, who continues to drive at age 91.

The former Pan American-Grace Airways airline captain, who flew long-distance routes amid the Andes in South America, draws on more than 27,000 hours as a commercial pilot where safety involved "staying ahead of the game."

Howard Demask, the 100-year-old driver involved in Tuesday's accident, said he's not a careless driver. His only other accident, he says, was 60 years ago.

"I don't go 70 or 80 miles an hour, I don't go out to (Interstate) 75 and drive. I go from (Apollo Beach) to Ruskin or in that area and back, and that's about it."

The lack of options for living in modern society without access to a vehicle is a big reason drivers are reluctant to hand over their car keys for good, said Jeff Johnson, Florida state director for AARP, which provides a driver-safety class and information on when it makes sense to hang up the keys.

"For millions of Floridians, independence means driving," Johnson said. "Florida has struggled to provide convenient public transportation, and transportation alternatives other than cars can be hard to find."

State officials say they realize the number of older drivers will continue to increase — a quarter of Florida's drivers are predicted to be 65 or older by 2030 — and have been working to make sure those drivers are safe.

"The main thing is to work to reduce crash rates," said Gail Holley, program manager for the Florida Department of Transportation's Safe Mobility for Life Program.

The SafeandMobileSeniors.org website is a repository for transportation safety and mobility information and resources concerning Florida's aging drivers and pedestrians, including a focus on roadway improvements.

In recent years, Florida has increased the width of pavement stripes on state highways from 4 inches to 6 inches, made street name signs bigger and installed more signs before intersections telling motorists which cross streets are coming up.

Perhaps that might have helped with a 1985 incident involving an older driver.

A Chicago couple flew into Tampa International and rented a car to drive to Sebring, 90 miles southeast of Tampa.

The 87-year-old man at the wheel and his 78-year-old wife headed out on Interstate 275 in the wrong direction. They drove to St. Petersburg and onto Interstate 175, which ended a few blocks short of Albert Whitted Airport.

The man drove onto the airport property and then onto the runway, which he mistook for a highway ramp. He drove the length of the runway at an estimated 50 mph before hitting a grassy strip and sailing over a seawall, landing in 4- to 6-feet-deep water about 30 feet offshore.

The two were dazed but not seriously injured, news accounts said.

"They thought they were on the interstate," a police officer said. "They were just an elderly couple who got lost."

BY THE NUMBERS

90

Crashes per 10,000 licensed drivers in 2010 for motorists 80 years or older

347

crashes per 10,000 licensed drivers in 2010 for motorists ages 15 to 24

1.8

million

Number of Floridians 71 or older with driver's licenses

65,000

Number of Floridians 90 or older with driver's licenses

 

***

 

WARNING SIGNS

Older drivers sometimes can monitor changes in their
driving behavior, such as missing once-customary turns or driving more slowly than most of the traffic. However, safety often depends on observance by family and friends. The AARP has developed 10 major warning signs for older drivers:

Almost getting into accidents, with frequent “close calls.”

Finding dents and scrapes on the car or on the driver’s property, such as fences, mailboxes, garage doors, curbs, etc.

Getting lost.

Difficulty seeing or following traffic signals, road signs and pavement markings.

Delayed response time to unexpected situations on the road, difficulty moving their feet from the gas pedal to the brake pedal or confusing the two.

Misjudging gaps in traffic at intersections and on highway entrance and exit ramps.

Experiencing road rage or having other drivers frequently honk at them.

Easily becoming distracted or having difficulty concentrating while driving.

Difficulty turning around to check over the shoulder while backing up or changing lanes.

Receiving multiple traffic tickets or warnings from traffic or law enforcement officers.


tjackovics@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7817 News Channel 8 reporter Jeff Patterson contributed to this report.

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