Statistics show crashes on decline for elderly drivers
WORTHINGTON -- The driver was going 15 miles per hour (MPH) in a 45 MPH zone, swerved in and out of the driving lane repeatedly, then ran a stop sign. When the officer pulled up behind the vehicle in his squad car, the driver stopped the car in the center of an intersection, then shifted into reverse, backing into the squad car.
Was the driver drunk? Under the influence of a narcotic?
No. The driver was elderly, confused and had deteriorating eyesight.
In 2008, more than 10,000 traffic crashes were caused by people older than age 65 in Minnesota, according to Minnesota Motor Vehicle Crash Facts, published by the Department of Public Safety (DPS), Office of Traffic Safety. More than 2,000 of those drivers were over the age of 80.
Statistically, the amount of drivers older than age 80 has gone up in Minnesota by more than 19,500 since 2003. The number of drivers over age 80 involved in traffic crashes, however, has gone down by about 100 since 2004, DPS numbers show.
Locally, when an officer notices an elderly person having driving difficulties, a request for an examination of the driver is sent to the state. The request can actually be for anyone of any age, and is normally put into motion after a specific event, such as a traffic crash or incident. Exam requests can be requested after someone goes the wrong way down a one-way street, crosses a median or causes a crash.
"There has to be a specific problem," said Worthington Police Captain Chris Dybevick. "It could happen to anybody, and one criterion that can't be considered is age."
The request is sent to the state, and the person's record is reviewed.
"There is a misconception that the Worthington Police Department takes away a driver's license," Dybevick explained. "That is not the case. The State of Minnesota issues a driver's license, and the state takes it away."
If the state decides to revoke driving privileges, a letter is sent to the individual, informing them of the change in driving status. It is up to that individual to honor that change. The local authorities are also informed of the change, however.
Witnessing an elderly person's driving difficulties is one way law enforcement can request the state exam. Another would be if the request came from a physician. Family members have been known to speak to doctors or officers about a loved one's diminishing driving capabilities, but Dybevick said the law enforcement officers would still have to witness a driving problem before requesting the exam. Having a family member bring it up to law enforcement can put the officers on alert to watch for problems.
Dybevick said some of the signs an elderly person is having trouble driving include driving very slowly and having trouble negotiating in traffic.
According to the 2008 Crash Facts, 33 percent of the crashes caused by drivers ages 80 and up happened because of a failure to yield a right of way to another driver. On average, crashes by drivers of all ages caused by disregard of a traffic control device such as stoplights or signs was 4.6 percent in 2008. For drivers over 80, that percentage jumps to 7.8.
A driver going much slower than the posted speed limit could be doing so because eyesight and reflexes are a problem. Quite often, Dybevick said, he hears an elderly person mention after an accident that they didn't see another vehicle or didn't recognize a hazard.
If a request for an exam is made by an officer, the intent is not to insult or upset an elderly driver. Nor is it to "take their keys away."
"We request you get retested for public safety," Dybevick stated.
Dybevick recommends that drivers older than 55 years old take the driving courses offered by community service or insurance companies. In the past, he was asked to speak at local driving classes. That duty has now been taken over by another officer with the Worthington Police Department.
"Taking the class keeps drivers current on changes in the law and how they are being enforced," Dybevick explained. "You'll get a local perspective on our ordinances. Plus, you get a break on your insurance."
He pointed out that any person in the state, regardless of age, who gets more than three moving violation in 12 months or more than five within 24 months is subject to having their driver's license suspended. Again, the license is not suspended by the police department, but by the state. Moving violations in other states can eventually be included on a Minnesota driver's record because of the reciprocity between states.
At Caring.com, senior editor Paula Spencer recently wrote an article on the subject of mandatory driving tests for elderly people, especially those exhibiting signs of dementia.
"When dementia enters the picture, the driver often lacks the selfawareness or judgment to realize they are a road risk," she wrote.
There have been arguments for and against the idea of mandatory retesting for seniors, which some elderly people find insulting. Spencer's list of reasons why the testing may be a good idea include the transfer of burden to the authorities, which makes the "system" act like the bad guy instead of the family, and it elevates awareness about the risks of driving for the elderly.
In Japan, Spencer wrote, people older than age 75 are required to take an exam that lasts 30 minutes and includes cognitive skill tests such as writing a description of 14 illustrations, drawing a clock showing a certain time and writing the current time and date.
But giving up keys can be a loaded issue. For elderly people it can represent a loss of control in their lives, an increase in dependency, and can trigger deep fear. The practicalities can also be a problem. How will they get to the grocery store, doctor appointments or wherever else they need to go? Family members can step in to offer assistance, but some elderly people don't have family nearby or are hesitant to become a burden.
Like getting a license for the first time as a teenager, giving up driving privileges is a major milestone in a person's life.
For suggestions about how to talk to a loved one about giving up keys and other related subjects, visit www.caring.com.