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Seniors, Doctors Debate: How Old Is Too Old To Drive?

By Linda Santacruz, The Palm Beach Post, Fla.
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

Aug. 05--WEST PALM BEACH -- Even though her independent living complex in West Palm Beach offers transportation services, 83-year-old Edith Zuckerberg prefers to drive.

She doesn't drive far. She calls herself a "neighborhood driver" and only travels a few miles from the Tradition of the Palm Beaches complex to the supermarket or the hair salon.

"I hardly even go to the mall anymore," Zuckerberg said. "I probably put gas in the car once a month if that. That tells you how much driving I do."

Recently, though, she said she has felt pressured to quit.

"My children have been bothering me that it's time," Zuckerberg said. "They hear all these stories in the news about people my age having trouble."

There has been a debate about whether the state should require older drivers to be retested and re-certified in order to continue driving.

Last week, an 88-year-old woman crashed into an auto shop when she hit the accelerator, speeding across Detroit Street in suburban Lake Worth. The driver of the car, Constance DeMarco was listed in critical condition in Delray Medical Center and her husband Frank DeMarco, 90, died.

There are about 167,000 licensed drivers age 70 and over in Palm Beach County. That number will continue to grow as the huge baby boomer population heads into its 60s.

By 2020, Florida's population of persons 65 and older will double since 2000, according to a Florida Department Law Enforcement report. Subsequently, the hunt is on for better screening tools, the department said.

Fatalities drive driving debate

In 2010 TRIP, a national transportation research group, ranked Florida No. 1 in senior-related fatal crashes, even ahead of California, which has more seniors. State statistics show 434 crash fatalities of all ages involved drivers age 65 and older in 2012, or about 14 percent of all fatal crashes.

The debate over "how old is too old to drive" usually kicks up whenever there is a fatal accident involving an elderly person.

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Texas recently revamped laws after a 90-year-old Dallas woman driving recklessly hit and killed a teenager, who was on her way to school. The state now requires in-person renewals once a person is 79.

In 2004, Florida joined the 40 states requiring vision tests for older drivers. Floridians 80 and older must pass an eye exam every six years.

But some worry whether vision tests are enough.

"Vision is just one of many different cognitive and physical functions that all have to work together in concert in order to allow a person to drive safely," said Raphael J. Wald, a neuropsychologist at Christine E. Lynn College of Nursing and the Louis and Anne Green Memory & Wellness Center at Florida Atlantic University. "It's just a tiny piece of the puzzle."

The Memory & Wellness center offers a driver evaluation program where seniors are tested on visual, physical and thinking abilities needed to drive safely. A final behind-the-wheel component sums up the assessment.

"When a person's cognitive function declines, it can dramatically affect their ability to drive even in ways that they are not seeing or noticing," Wald said. "The consequences are huge. They can hurt or paralyze themselves or someone else."

Rose McVay noticed. The 88-year-old Lake Worth resident quit driving two years ago because she no longer felt safe.

"Let's face it -- it's a result of old age," McVay said. "Your senses are not like when you were younger and you're more fearful of hurting yourself or someone else."

But for others, it's hard to give up driving because they associate it with independence.

West Palm Beach'sMorris Horowitz, 89, loves his occasional trips Boca Raton and doesn't mind hopping on Florida's Turnpike or Interstate 95 to get there. Even when his children wonder if his time has come to stop driving, Horowitz said he will make that decision for himself.

"As long as I feel comfortable, I will drive," Horowitz said. "The day I don't feel comfortable anymore behind the wheel, I will give somebody my car."

State revokes some licneses

Not everyone has the luxury of deciding for themselves.

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Last year, the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles revoked 6,695 licenses for medical reasons, 3,367 of them being vision related.

Miguel Angel Sous, 76, from Greenacres was denied a renewal after failing a sight test.

"I'm almost blind in my right eye but I see just fine with my left eye," Sousa said. "I don't like this. I don't like needing my daughter to take me everywhere."

Still, in 2012, the most recent year statistics were available, drivers over 70 in Florida had crash rates lower than drivers aged 15 to 19.

Statistics show that the vast majority of seniors are capable drivers and they have the lowest crash rates. Drivers 60 and older kill fewer pedestrians, bicyclists, motorcyclists and occupants of other vehicles than do drivers ages 30-59, according the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

"I think that people should just get checked out to make sure that they are keeping themselves safe," Wald said, explaining that there is no set age that can determine a person's driving capabilities. "It's different for everyone. But most people over the age of 70 should be able to continue driving."


(c)2014 The Palm Beach Post (West Palm Beach, Fla.)

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Distributed by MCT Information Services

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