On her 101st birthday last week, Mary E. Cooper took me for a ride in her car. I am often flabbergasted by the way elderly people drive, and I couldn’t imagine someone born in 1911 being on the loose in Washington traffic.
I just had to see how she rolled.
“The good thing about me, I’m still very alert and know what’s happening around me,” Cooper said.
Of course she’d say that. When it comes to self-assessment of driving ability, nobody talks a better game than an elderly person. To hear the elderly tell it, the older they get, the better they drive. Anything to keep from giving up those car keys.
A study published in the September issue of Accident Analysis and Prevention found that 85 percent of Maryland drivers ages 65 to 91 rated their road skills as “excellent” or “good.” None thought of themselves as “poor” drivers, even if they had been in a crash.
Cooper, it turns out, was not exaggerating. She’s a good driver, wears a seat belt, checks the mirrors and approaches intersections with extra caution.
“If a person is in good health and can see, it’s your health that matters, not your age,” Cooper said as she drove us around in her 2005 Hyundai Elantra. “People with something like glaucoma, no, I don’t think they should be driving.”
Or people who just suffer from old-folk driving syndrome and really never learned how to drive. You see them tilted forward in their seats, turkey neck stretched almost to the windshield. They use a two-handed death grip on the steering wheel and keep their elbows locked so tightly that they have to come to a near stop to turn a corner.
There was one pet peeve of mine: Cooper sometimes did that old-folk creep-along.
“Look. First of all, I do not exceed the speed limit,” she said. “If the speed limit is 25, I drive 25. If the speed limit is 40, I can do 35. And if it’s 50 or 60, I’m just going to do what I can.”
A tailgater magnet, I figured.
“No,” Cooper said. “They just zoom by, honking their horn.”
Could have been me, I confessed.
Driving the route she takes from her neighborhood in North Michigan Park, in Northeast Washington, to meet with friends at the Mall at Prince George’s in West Hyattsville, Cooper passed three speed cameras and one red-light camera.
“I just got a speeding ticket a few weeks ago,” she said, slowing to a crawl at one of the cameras. “It cost $40.”
As far as she was concerned, drivers could honk at her all they wanted, but unless somebody was willing to pay her fines, she was going to creep along.
For a centenarian, Cooper looked amazing. Glamorous, even. She always wears stylish hats and sunglasses, and has a sassiness about her that friends say really comes out when she plays bid whist, pinochle and poker.
I asked if she plays for money.
“What else is there to play for?” she replied.
Playing cards helps keep her mind sharp, she said.
Cooper was born on a farm outside Sumter, S.C., the oldest of seven children. She and a sister, Sue, 96, are the only ones still living. The family moved to Washington when Cooper was 9. She has been married three times and outlived all of her husbands.She has no children but does have dozens of nieces and nephews who see her as a mother.
If good health was the secret to good driving, what was the secret to her health and good looks?
“It’s up to God,” she said. “When you are born, you have a set time and nobody knows when their time is going to be up.”
But there were things you could do to help yourself, she added.
“I never drank, smoked or fooled with the weeds, you know, that stuff,” she said. “And I don’t let anything upset me, especially traffic. I don’t like stress. I can’t stand arguing. If anybody is fussing, I’m gone. I like to be around positive people, people who lift you up not bring you down.”
Until she hurt her knee recently, Cooper spent 22 years walking with friends around the mall. She was also a member of a gym and worked out regularly.
“I can eat anything,” she said, meaning she can take a bite of something she has a taste for and put the rest aside.
And here’s the real secret: “I don’t like sweets,” she said. “Never have, not even as a little girl.”
What she does like is driving.
“My car is my freedom, my independence,” she said. “The day I can no longer drive they might as well dig a hole and put me in it.”
She’s in no hurry.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/courtland-milloy.