Older drivers face choice between safety and mobility

By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 30, 2009

For 60 years, Mary Schaaf has had a driver's license, and now, at the age of 86, she finds she's driving more than ever.

That's because her friends are not. One by one, they have surrendered their car keys, their independence overtaken by fading eye sight, slowing reflexes and physical infirmities that make navigating the fast-paced roads of Montgomery County too risky.

They turn to Schaaf, who drives on, undaunted by the years or the "erratic" younger drivers who share the roads with her.

"I pretty much feel comfortable driving in this area because I've been driving here a long time," she said.

The generation that gave birth to suburbia and the two-car garage is reaching the age at which driving, for many, no longer seems like such a swell option. As Americans grow older -- one in five will be 65 or older by 2030 -- many are finding that the world that lured them away from city life is losing some of its appeal.

"The concern is that when they no longer can drive, they will find themselves trapped in their homes in suburban neighborhoods where there are no sidewalks, or, if there are sidewalks, there's no place to walk to," said Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth.

Trapped, indeed, said Schaaf, who recalled the frustration of a 90-year-old friend when she had to give up driving.

"Most people go through a period of being unhappy about it," Schaaf said. "She didn't like having to do all that scheduling of the taxis and other pickup services."

Suburbia is where the population is aging fastest. At the dawn of the 21st century, 69 percent of people 65 or older lived in the suburbs. More than 285,000 people in that age group live in the three largest counties surrounding Washington: Fairfax, Montgomery and Prince George's.

And aging baby boomers want to remain in the suburbs where they were raised. Eighty-five percent of people 50 or older told the AARP that they plan to live in their communities for as long as they can.

But for many older people, the AARP said, driving has lost its attraction. More than half of drivers 75 or older avoid driving at night or in bad weather, and almost 40 percent of them stay home when traffic is at its worst, according to recent research.

The AARP also found that older adults prefer to travel by car, either as drivers or passengers, rather than take public transportation.

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