Age brings driving experience and additional challenges for elderly
Engines hum as cars roll up and down Berkshire roadways. The speedometers climb as seemingly everyone races against their ticking clocks.
To get to work. To get home. To get anywhere before it closes.
But on a sunny day in Pittsfield last weekend, resident Bob Kornn took his time. He waited patiently at a green light for drivers to turn left onto Route 9 from Dalton Avenue, even though their green arrow had turned red. He always used turn signals. And a guardian-angel charm swung from his rear-view mirror.
The speedometer of Kornn's 2003 Chevy constantly fluttered around 30 mph; the cars behind him changed lanes to speed in front of him.
"I don't care how you want to pass -- just don't cause an accident," said Kornn, 83, his eyes never leaving the road.
He said he's never caused an accident, and that includes 36 years of driving at least 22,000 miles a year for Berkshire Gas.
"I've seen him park in tight spots and not hit anything," said his wife, Barbara.
Whether they're driving as cautiously as Kornn did last weekend, or crashing into a pole -- as 86-year-old TV personality Gene Shalit did in Lenox on Oct. 24 -- senior citizens often find themselves as part of a sensitive debate about whether they should be behind the wheel.
"The public sees many older people going slow on the roads, taking turns too slow," said David Coco, the owner of Dave's Driving School in Pittsfield. "You also hear the drastic stories about an older person losing control and hitting people."
(Shalit faces a potential criminal charge of operating negligently to endanger after he drove his Honda Element into a utility pole and then up against a house. No one was hurt.)
Statistics in 2010 from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) showed that the safest drivers were in the 65 to 69 age group. Con versely, drivers 25-34 were involved in nearly 20 percent of the fatal crashes in 2010, the highest figure for any age group.
When it comes to driving, Coco said, being older can be advantageous despite the problems associated with the aging process.
"Don't underestimate an older person," Coco said. "There's still some good driving left in them."
‘It's more the illnesses'
The NHTSA defines an "older driver" as someone 65 or over. There will be an estimated 40 million licensed elderly drivers in the United States in 2020; there were just over 32 million in 2010.
About 19 percent of Berkshire County's population is 65 or older, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures for 2011.
With age comes more health issues, including cataracts that cause vision problems, hearing difficulties that slow reaction time, and arthritis, which makes the simplest body movements challenging.
"It's not that age factors into an effect; it's more the illnesses," said Bertha Lawrence, an 84-year-old AARP member who has hosted the senior citizens' driver seminar Alive at 55 in the Berkshires since 1991.
The Nov. 9 seminar refreshed the memories of 17 seniors on topics such as road safety and of vehicle and road changes they might not have heard of.
"Some people are better drivers when they're older because they have more experience," Lawrence said.
Between 2005 and 2010, an average of about 250 accidents a year involved drivers 65 and older in Pittsfield. The mean for drivers 16 to 24 was approximately twice that, according to Sgt. Mark Trapani, who supervises accident investigations for the Pittsfield Police Department.
"It's easy to attribute an accident due to age, but you can attribute age to younger drivers too," Trapani said.
The Safe Driving Law, a state statute that took effect on Sept. 30, 2010, requires drivers 75 and older to renew their licenses in person -- and pass an eye exam -- every five years. Under the law, physicians may claim immunity against violating a patient's privacy to inform the Registry of Motor Vehicles that a patient isn't fit to drive.
Edith Mazzer, 88, said she's never had an accident, and she passed her driving test again in September.
"It's not like when I was 40, but I'm cautious," Mazzer said, her walking cane perched against her chair.
She said she drives only in good weather, and that her doctor says driving will help keep her mind active.
"My doctor tells me to not give up driving for as long as I can," Mazzer said. "I don't intend to ever stop. I intend to drive until I die."
Young and old, pros and cons
A popular hang-out for people 55 and over, the Froio Senior Center in downtown Pittsfield provides morning and afternoon recreation. The mantra here is "Driving is a privilege; transportation is a right," Director Vin Marinaro said.
Kornn joined a handful of close-knit seniors who were sitting around a table enjoying a meal provided by the center. Group members took turns defending their rights to drive when asked about the topic.
The amount of miles driven decline sharply as people get older, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
"I don't go out joy-riding," said Dot W., who declined to give her full last name or her age. "I go to church, the doctor, the dentist, the doctor, the doctor, the doctor ..."
"I only go out at night when I play bingo," added 83-year-old Muriel Fitzgerald. "I don't know what I'd do without my license."
At less than 1 percent, motor-vehicle accidents take a back seat to heart disease and cancer as the leading cause of death for seniors 70 and older. Coco cited alcohol consumption, speeding, road rage and technology such as texting or adjusting the stereo as major problems that can plague younger drivers.
"Older drivers don't engage in as much high-risk behavior," Coco said.
Some tell-tale signs that a senior citizen might want to give up driving, according to Lawrence, include scrapes and dents on the car, and a lot of near-misses.
"But there are different indicators for each person," she added. "You can't just put all the elderly into one pot and tell them to get off the highways."
When it's time for "the talk," family members typically sit down with elderly relatives to discuss the possibility of them giving up driving for the safety of everyone on the road.
Literature is available through insurance agencies and government websites on how to better approach the conversation.
"The family worries about them losing control and hitting people," Coco said. "[The senior citizens] feel their individuality being threatened."
Dave's Driving School constantly administers driving practice tests for seniors who are having their driving abilities questioned. He tells drivers exactly what's wrong, if anything, with their driving.
"I'll be right up front with them," Coco said.
He said the evaluations are mostly passed, and he'll usually request only a larger mirror or pedal extension. But the senior family member occasionally rejects Coco's and the family's request.
"I've had arguments in my office between family members, and they've been fierce," Coco said. "Perhaps we should all be more patient on the road."
To reach Adam Poulisse:
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In 2010, the latest data available from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, 4,139 people 70 and older died in motor vehicle crashes -- less than 1 percent of the fatalities in that age group.
In 2010, nearly 4 percent of fatal crashes involved drivers 65 to 69 years of age, compared with the almost 20 percent caused by drivers 25 to 34 and the nearly 17 percent for drivers 45 to 54.
From 2005 to 2010, an average of nearly 250 accidents a year involved senior citizen drivers.
Sources: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, Pittsfield Police Department