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Dodgers of codgers: Pa. pols evading poor elderly drivers

LET'S STOP pretending this isn't a problem. Elderly drivers. Sure, most are safe behind the wheel. But many are terrifying - worse than a 16-year-old chugging Four Loko and

An 85-year-old man crashed his car into a Burger King at 8th and Market streets in July. (Steven M. Falk/Staff)
An 85-year-old man crashed his car into a Burger King at 8th and Market streets in July. (Steven M. Falk/Staff)Read more

Let's stop pretending this isn't a problem. Elderly drivers. Sure, most are safe behind the wheel. But many are terrifying - worse than a 16-year-old chugging Four Loko and texting his girlfriend while merging onto the Schuylkill Expressway with a car full of rowdy teenagers.

Ask Ruth Humphrey, who was eating lunch at the Burger King at 8th and Market streets in July when an 85-year-old man in a Grand Marquis made his own drive-through lane in the side of the restaurant. He crashed through the glass and bricks, and pulled up to Humphrey's table.

"I thought maybe the ceiling was falling in," said Humphrey, who suffered minor injuries. "Then I turned my head and that car was right beside me."

Six patrons were taken to local hospitals, including one with a serious leg injury. The gray-haired driver popped the car trunk, limped over the crunchy glass, and retrieved his walker. No charges were filed.

"It seems like so many of them are just getting confused with the gas and the brakes," Humphrey said of senior drivers.

That appears to be what happened in September when an 89-year-old Haverford man killed his daughter and injured his wife when he ran them over in his driveway. Haverford Police Sgt. Michael Glenn said the driver may have "accidentally applied the accelerator instead of the brake."

Last month, an 84-year-old woman plowed into the Once Again Thrift Shop in Berks County, striking two toddlers. A 79-year-old woman was killed the next day when she drove off Route 73 and into a Marlton pond.

Yesterday, an 80-year-old woman in Pennsville, N.J., rammed into an optician's office that she was visiting when she hit the gas by mistake, police said. "She lost control of the vehicle trying to park," said Lt. Allen Cummings.

And last year, Margaret Lazor, 87, made national news on the way to her dentist by driving the wrong way on I-95 in Delaware County. For several miles.

"I saw cars swerving around her; she wouldn't stop," witness Tim Fleming, who videotaped the incident from the northbound side of I-95, said at the time on "Good Morning America." "I yelled at her again and she just waved her arm at me, like, 'Leave me alone.' "

Lazor caused at least four accidents as bug-eyed drivers avoided a head-on collision with her wood-paneled Buick Century station wagon. She still doesn't understand what happened.

"I was going down the road and just went the wrong way," Lazor recalled recently at her Wilmington, Del., home. "I don't drive anymore. My daughter decided for me."

Tough politics, loose laws

It can take a major traffic accident to get seniors with cognitive impairments off the roads. Few states have strong laws to test older drivers' skills, and Pennsylvania's system is particularly loose.

Yet lawmakers here are cracking down on young drivers. In the past two months, Gov. Corbett has signed a law limiting the number of passengers teen drivers can carry and a law banning texting while driving, which primarily affects younger drivers.

"You think we're picking on you? We are, we really are," Corbett told Harrisburg High School students in October, when the teen-driving bill was signed. "We singled you out because we want you here a long time from now."

Elderly drivers rarely hear such tough love from politicians, who would rather not upset a powerful, rapidly growing segment of the voting public. Pennsylvania has the third-oldest population in the nation, and the number of residents age 62 and older increased 7.7 percent between 2000 and 2010, while the under-18 population decreased 4.5 percent.

"There are some legitimate concerns about older drivers, as things like eyesight and reflexes are diminished," said Christopher Borick, director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion. "It's eminently reasonable to look at finding ways to make sure that seniors, like young individuals, are in the best condition to drive.

"We've seen states take action, but that doesn't mean those actions are going to be popular with a very powerful voting bloc that will see some of these measures as punitive.

Asked whether Corbett would favor tougher driving laws for seniors, spokesman Kevin Harley would say only that no such legislation has been introduced. He referred questions to PennDOT. 

Safety vs bias

If this debate sounds familiar, it's because it flares up around the country whenever an older person causes a horrific accident, such as in 2003, when an 89-year-old man killed 10 people and injured dozens by driving into a Santa Monica, Calif., farmers market. But significant legislation rarely follows, experts say.

In 1995, for instance, then-District Attorney Lynne Abraham told two state Senate committees in Philadelphia that the problem of impaired elderly drivers had been "willingly swept under the rug." She was joined at City Hall by the families of two women who had been killed by elderly drivers.

Today, 28 states and Washington, D.C., have some form of senior-driver laws, such as accelerated license-renewal cycles, vision tests, mandatory certification from a doctor or road-testing.

Pennsylvania has none of those. Each month, PennDOT requires 1,900 drivers 45 and older - selected at random - to pass a vision test and physical before they can renew their license. For everyone else, PennDOT relies on relatives, neighbors and doctors to report a senior who may be an unsafe driver.

"Age is not a determining factor in a driver's competency," said PennDOT spokeswoman Jan McKnight.

Seniors have a relatively low crash-rate per capita, but their crash-rate per mile traveled begins increasing at age 70, and increases sharply after 80, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). A study published this year in the journal Accident Analysis and Prevention found that drivers 65 and older were half as likely to see pedestrians on the sidewalk and responded more slowly to pedestrian hazards than did younger drivers.

Yet states have struggled to establish ways to identify problem drivers accurately without restricting capable older drivers. Studies show that license revocation can lead to depression and other health issues in the elderly. New Hampshire this year ended road-testing of drivers 75 and older after an 84-year-old state lawmaker called it discriminatory.

"I've seen drivers in their 80s and 90s more capable than drivers in their 20s," said Lt. Jeff Hopkins of the Pennsylvania State Police Bureau of Patrol. "The question becomes, how do you fairly and impartially segregate a section of the population and say, 'We just want to check you.' "

Several studies have shown that states requiring vision testing of seniors have lower fatal-crash rates, but not enough research has been conducted to determine whether laws targeting seniors are effective, said Anne McCartt, the IIHS's senior vice president for research.

Aging baby boomers

Matt Gurwell, founder of Keeping Us Safe, an organization that helps senior drivers assess their own driving skills, says it's time for a definitive national study examining the effectiveness of each state's senior-driver laws. But he's doubtful that lawmakers would move toward road-testing seniors because of the costs of the tests and the politics working against such regulations.

"Lobbyists for the older generation are claiming that it's an age-discrimination issue, and they're extremely powerful," said Gurwell, a former Ohio State Highway Patrol assistant district commander.

That's not going to change. Seniors are the fastest-growing population in the U.S. By 2020, there will be an estimated 40 million licensed drivers age 65 and older, up from 32 million drivers in 2009, according to AAA.

"We could never support anything that's going to go after a person just based on age," said Angela Foreshaw-Rouse, spokeswoman for AARP Pennsylvania. "We know there are many wonderful and competent drivers over the age of 50."The AARP publishes a list of warning signs that it might be time for a senior to stop driving. It includes "finding dents and scrapes" on a vehicle, "having trouble seeing or following traffic signals" and "misjudging gaps in traffic."

By that time, however, older drivers might already be a threat to the public - and themselves.

Humphrey, the woman who was nearly struck by an elderly driver inside Burger King in July, says she'd like seniors to pass a road test when they get their licenses renewed, like in Illinois, where every driver 75 and older is retested at license-renewal time.

"I'm not trying to say that all of them need it," Humphrey cautioned.

Just some of them.