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First of a series
Taking away the car keys

(Week of May 19, 2011)

Photo: Barbara Mandell, 86, who taught AARP driving classes for 19 years, drives her Volkswagen around Vero.

When Peggy Cunningham’s father-in-law finally had to give up his driver’s license, his family knew he was letting go of far more than the wheel. 

For a man who had commuted daily from New Jersey to the Bronx, his license was a badge of honor. Now, at 87, a Sunday drive was a hard-earned right.

He ignored the pleas of his grown children. Some refused to ride with him.

“He was one of those tough cases,” says Cunningham, executive director of the Alzheimer and Parkinson Association of Indian River County. “It just really bothered him.”

Then, one day, he sailed past his freeway exit with Cunningham in the passenger seat beside him.

 “That was it,” says Cunningham, who deals almost daily with the issue of when to restrict driving when person’s skills decline. “It’s a practical decision.”

For many older people, what seems practical is to continue running their errands without imposing on family or social agencies, and curtailing driving as they age to accommodate the changes in abilities.

If it seems like a generation gap forming, it is only likely to grow wider, as the number of older drivers will increase dramatically in the next 20 years.

Drivers young and old point to the string of fatal accidents on Indian River Blvd. to make their case.  An 86-year-old man died in March after driving into the path of a car driven by a 70-year-old woman. In February, a 64-year-old woman was killed after turning in front of a pickup truck driven by a 47-year-old woman.

Near Dodgertown, a crash that killed a 21-year-old bicyclist in February prompted questions about the lack of upper age limits on commercial driver’s licenses in light of the age – 83 – of the tour bus driver involved in the mishap.

Problems arise with setting limits on older drivers, given that their skills vary widely from individual to individual.  Experts point out that a driver in his or her 60s could have more physical limitations or mental health issues than a fit, alert 85-year-old.

They also say if states such as Florida take action to increase testing of elderly drivers, they are also going to have to provide transportation options.

As families dealing with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease look to Cunningham for guidance, she urges them to consider who else may be affected.   “Look at that car next to you, that family with three kids. It’s better to have that uncomfortable conversation than to have something happen.”

Driving is a symbol of independence, abridged by youth at one end of life and old age at the other. The subject of giving up the keys is not one most former drivers are eager to discuss. The families of aging drivers were more than willing, hoping to ease the ordeal for others.

Those “others” include their own children in another decade or two, when a demographic bubble fills the roads with older drivers like never before. Odds are no state will be hit harder than Florida, where officials predict one in four drivers will be over 65 by 2030.

Crash statistics take a sharp turn upward beginning at age 70, more per mile than with adolescent drivers. Older and wiser – maybe. Slower and stiffer, almost certainly.

At some point, if people live long enough, safe driving will simply be beyond their ability. The American Medical Association estimates that with current life expectancies, men on average will live without licenses for seven years; for women, it’s 10 years.

Some drivers are relieved not to have to face the anxiety of driving.  For others, the pleasure, performance and duty of driving are an integral part of their self-image.

While the state can mandate exams at certain ages – vision tests at 80 for example – legislators are wary of painting with too broad a brush such a big block of voters.  Besides, many drivers retain their skills well into old age.

If Cunningham’s father-in-law was sure of his driving skills, consider 83-year-old Robert G. DuBose, who retired from the five-generation Vero Beach family jewelry business in 1990 and soon began driving a tour bus for a living.

According to reports, one morning in February, the bus he was driving drifted onto the shoulder of the road as it approached a busy intersection near Dodgertown, hitting and killing bicyclist Nick Rybka, 21.

With the investigation ongoing, results from mechanical tests on the bus and DuBose’s medical tests haven’t been released. But his commercial license meant he underwent far more regular assessments than the average aging driver.

Ironically, the ability to assess one’s own driving skills may decline along with the skills themselves. For adult children left to monitor parents driving abilities, they face assuming a whole additional burden.

“Taking away the keys touches everyone’s lives,” says Indian River County Sheriff Deryl Loar, a 20-year veteran of the Florida Highway Patrol. “Someone is now going to have to take that responsibility of going to the grocery or the bank. But they have to balance that against a tragic situation that could devastate a family by way of a civil lawsuit.”

Apart from a vision test when people over 79 renew their licenses and every six years after that, Florida has no required driving assessments for the elderly unless a driver’s license examiner observes a reason to impose one.

Loar points out that law enforcement can request a re-exam on crash reports.

The American Medical Association last year issued exhaustive guidelines for physicians to determine their patients’ abilities to operate vehicles.

Doctors, families or agencies confidentially report drivers to the state, and the state could require a driver to take another driving test or medical exam to keep his or her license. Last year, the state sent out 9,105 letters and revoked 7,719 licenses for medical reasons. That was up from just under 7,000 revocations the year before.

“We try to confront them with sensitivity,” says Loar. “After all, this is the ‘greatest generation’ we’re talking about here. These are folks that may have been driving since they were 14.”

Barbara Mandell, an AARP driving instructor for 19 years, moved to Vero Beach to help drive her then 83-year-old mother around.

“Her vision and her hearing were both gone, yet she was sneaking around when she knew she shouldn’t be driving because she wanted to keep volunteering at the hospital,” says Mandell. “She’d get up at 5:30 a.m. and take these back roads where nobody would see her.” 

Mandell, herself now 86, says she got her driving skills “from the cabs at 125th Street in Manhattan,” where she was doing graduate work at Columbia University in physical education; she later taught at the college level. Fit and agile, driving is a part of her life; her vacations revolved around road trips.

In Vero, she routinely drives friends who cannot drive. “And when I can’t drive anymore, I’ve got six great neighbors who will help me with anything I need,” she says, pointing to all sides of her Central Beach house.

Art instructor and painter Kathy Staiger calls it “providential” that she and her husband moved here just as her 85-year-old mother had to give up the keys. That was in 1998.  “Up until that time she was very insistent that as long as she kept to her set paths, she’d be just fine.”

When she gave up driving, even with her daughter here to ease the inconvenience, it was a bleak time emotionally, Staiger says. “She saw it as the first step in the slow and inevitable erosion of her independence.”

For Mandell’s mother, though, giving up the keys brought relief. Driving as her sight failed was terribly stressful, Mandell says. “She was like a new person when she didn’t have to drive anymore. It lightened up her whole personality.”
“The parents are putting themselves at risk too,” says Karen Deigl, head of the county’s Senior Resource Association.

Motor vehicle injuries are the leading cause of injury-related deaths among 65- to 74-year-old drivers and are the second leading cause (after falls) among those 75 to 84 years old, according to a 2004 report by the Florida At-Risk Driver Counsel.

Deigl says women tend to relinquish their driving rights more willingly than men. “It’s an anger situation with men,” she says. “Could I tell my father what he’s going to do? Hell no. There’s just no way. He’s going to put that big old finger out there and say, ‘You back off!’ “

Driver training classes by organizations like the AARP’s courses, held regularly at the Brackett Library, are thought provoking at the very least, and include students as young as 50 there to earn car insurance  discounts. The two three-hour sessions are lively: expect trenchant commentary on how annoying other drivers are.

While it isn’t clear whether such classes actually prevent crashes, an AARP study showed that 10 percent of people who get the training consider curtailing or giving up their driving. Driving convictions also decreased.

Courses also are offered online through the DMV’s website which by law reduce insurance rates by 10 percent.

Other older drivers are keenly aware of declining abilities, what Cunningham calls “self-assessing.” “There’s always the grey area, and that’s when it’s always hardest,” she says.

Barbara Mandell calls it paying attention to close calls. “I know I’m not a morning person, so I try not to drive in the morning,” says Mandell. “I’m aware of needing more time for maneuvers, especially pulling into traffic. And I know if I hear a horn or someone gives me the finger, I need to figure out what I did wrong.”

It’s been 20 years since Mandell drove solo from Vero Beach to New York, as she used to well into her sixties. Instead, she flies to a general area and rents a car to visit friends. Her last trip was two years ago, when she drove through the Hudson Valley, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island.

Mandell says one day she probably will use a skills assessment test to judge her ability to drive. A state-run organization called Florida Grand Driver offers such tests in Orlando, and a company called DriveAble in Melbourne does testing too.

Others draw a line for themselves arbitrarily. Cunningham says the day her grandmother turned 80, she turned her driver’s license over to the state of New York. The governor wrote her a letter of thanks. “It hung on her wall, and she’d point it out proudly: ‘Look, I got a letter from the governor,’ ” says Cunningham.

Not everyone lets go so easily.

Cunningham suggests the gradual curtailing of former driving habits – ending night driving, or limiting drives to places a mile away or less.

She urges people to tell children their wishes now – as the subject comes up with their own parents. “Give your kids permission,” she says. “Have the conversation: ‘When it’s in your judgment that I can’t drive anymore, I want you to take those keys away.’ ”

Mandell doesn’t have children, though friends ride with her often and she expects them to observe her. In a way, driving is her sport. A student of the road, she is still working on her game, which is why she likes the AARP classes. “It makes you think about driving for a long time afterward,” she says.

Meanwhile, her red Passat wagon continues to get a workout. She’ll be using it to haul leaves to the dump, after she blows them off her roof. She says she is waiting for her neighbors to head back north to pull out her ladder and get started.

“They worry about me,” says Mandell.