Accidents spotlight elderly driving issues
Published 6:50 pm, Sunday, August 14, 2011
STAMFORD -- Ralph DeVito is an 86-year-old Stamford native and former Marine who fought in the Pacific theatre during World War II. When he stands, pain shoots through his back, a product of three surgeries in the 1990s. Both his knees and his hip have been replaced. He uses a wheeled walker to get around.
His daughters are concerned about him driving.
"It's a difficult subject," DeVito said on Friday, sitting in the library of the Stamford Senior Center in the Government Center on Washington Boulevard. "I was always a very strong person, and a careful person. If I knew I was going to kill myself I wouldn't drive."
More InformationElderly driving Concerned about a loved one? Check the list below for potential warning signs that it might be time to have a talk about their driving habits: Easily distracted while driving. Hitting curbs. Having trouble merging into lanes. Poor judgment making left turns. Failing to follow traffic signs and signals. Source: AARP
DeVito and his daughters are part of a long-standing quandary plaguing policy makers, law enforcement agencies and families alike -- how do authorities keep unsafe elderly drivers off the road without infringing their rights and access to transportation? The question burst into the spotlight this week when a 92-year-old driver plowed into a crowded Summer Street cafe during lunchtime on Monday, injuring 10 patrons as his car barreled through the glass storefront and came to rest 20 feet inside the eatery.
Before smashing through the cafe, the Honda Civic hit a pregnant woman and a friend sitting outside. The pregnant woman broke her leg, while her friend broke her pelvis and needs weeks of rehabilitation. The driver, Stamford resident Samuel Leighton, was not injured.
Stamford police said it appeared Leighton mistook the gas pedal for the brake when he was trying to park in a handicapped space in front of Cafe Oo La La. Leighton, whose license was revoked by police, told The Advocate he could not remember the accident.
"An accident such as the one that took place this week is the type of thing that may bring it to people's attention," said state Rep. Gerry Fox, D-Stamford, the co-chair of the Judiciary Committee and a member of the Transportation Committee of the state General Assembly.
Two other senior citizens were killed this week in separate accidents on Route 7. In the most recent, Frank Johnson, a 71-year-old Norwalk man, died this Friday when his Volkswagen strayed into the path of an oncoming dump truck. This Monday, Merle Singer, a 71-year-old from Mesquite, Texas, died after a station wagon she was riding in collided with a dump truck. The 91-year-old driver turned left onto Route 7 and pulled the station wagon directly in front of the truck.
Nationwide, older drivers get into more fatal accident than teenagers. Drivers older than 65 years old were involved in 12 percent of the 45,230 fatal accidents reported nationwide in 2009, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In Connecticut, older drivers were involved in 27 of the 300 fatal accidents reported that year amounting to 9 percent of all fatal accidents. Fox said Connecticut lawmakers last broached the subject of introducing safety measures for elderly drivers a few years ago during an overhaul of the state's teenage driving laws. He said the issue may be something lawmakers should consider in the next legislative session this February.
"The overriding factor is safety, not only for people who are operating vehicles but for those on the roads and sidewalks, and this instance in the cafe," Fox said. "So if we can do something that will further enhance safety, then I think we need to look into it."
Fox said lawmakers must still protect the rights of the state's aging population.
"People age differently, so I don't know if you can use a black-line test to determine whether people can drive," he said.
DeVito said he would support an individualized approach to testing for elderly drivers. Some of his peers have no problems.
"I guess that's the only way," he said. "How else can you tell? You have to check your reflexes."
The Connecticut Department of Motor Vehicles requires drivers 65 and older to renew their licenses in person every two years.
According to a 2007 legislative report, Connecticut is among eight states that do not require vision tests when drivers renew their licenses.
Stamford police Sgt. Andrew Gallagher, the supervisor of the department's Collision Analysis and Reconstruction Squad, said he and his officers revoke a driver's license about twice a month. Sometimes it's a motor vehicle stop with a confused driver, other times it's an accident or collision caused by medical problems.
After officers revoke a driver's license because of medical concerns the state DMV requires the driver to have their physician fill out an evaluation of their ability to operate vehicles, Gallagher said. The revocations are then reviewed by the DMV's Medical Advisory Board, which makes the final determination whether to suspend or permanently revoke a license based on the driver's medical history.
"A lot of times it causes a serious discussion between the doctor and the driver," Gallagher said. "The doctor is putting his reputation on the line."
In addition to conducting driver safety courses with the AARP, Gallagher said his unit is known to make house calls. Family members ask the officer to help them discuss their concerns with an older relatives' ability to drive. Attempts at taking away the car key from older relatives can turn contentious, and some opt to have an authority figure sit in on the talks.
"People are caught off guard that a police officer is addressing them," Gallagher said of the talks. "Most people think they are doing just fine."
Greenwich criminal defense attorney Philip Russell works on a handful of license revocations each year. The revocations are a wake-up call for some clients.
"Very often it is a life-saving intervention," Russel said. "Especially involving a situation with a person living alone where there is no other early warning system."
Without his car DeVito would be housebound. His wife died 10 years ago, so DeVito lives alone in an apartment his daughter bought for him. Driving means independence for DeVito, a regular at the Senior Center. Still, if his health wanes he would volunteer to hang up his car keys, he maintained.
"My daughters keep telling me I shouldn't drive," he said. "I'm being honest and I feel that my reflexes are good."
DeVito doesn't want to use services such as Dial-A-Ride. He said the wait is too long. Jennifer Millea, the spokeswoman for AARP Connecticut, said the state budget problems are affecting the transportation options for seniors who live in suburbs and rural areas that lack public transportation.
"In some respects we are going backwards instead of forwards," she said.
Millea said the AARP believes that senior drivers shouldn't be targeted alone for vision testing and other safety precautions. If the state wants to pursue those options they should be implemented for all age groups, she said.
"There really isn't a silver-bullet solution," Millea said. "There has to be this holistic approach. If these people are not able to drive how are they going to be able to avoid isolation and get where they need to go?"
-- Staff Writer Jeff Morganteen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 203-964-2215.