Older drivers face choice between safety and mobility

By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 30, 2009; B01

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.

"Imagine carrying three bags of groceries on a bus, with a walker," said Sue Dollins, executive director of the Senior Connection, a Silver Spring nonprofit group that provides rides for the elderly. "Not all of them are comfortable in taxis, where the driver may not speak English and drives like a maniac."

A change in ability

The problem is that with age, response time slows, vision and hearing diminish, and the ability to concentrate can wane. The laws in many jurisdictions take into account the effects of aging. For license renewals, vision tests are required of drivers 40 or older in Maryland and 80 or older in Virginia. In the District, people with Alzheimer's disease or any other condition that might impair their ability to drive are required to appear in person to renew their licenses.

Japan, with one of the world's oldest populations, began urging "gray drivers" last year to give up their licenses after the number of drivers 70 or older who were killed or injured in accidents increased 30 percent in six years.

In the United States, the number of older drivers involved in fatal accidents has remained fairly consistent in the past decade. Last year, 5,533 people 65 or older died in car crashes, 107 of them in Virginia, 83 in Maryland and 10 in the District, according to local and federal data.

"Although they have been driving longer than anyone else on the road, senior drivers have the highest crash-related death rate per mile, with the exception of drivers at the other end of the spectrum -- teenagers, who are the least experienced drivers," said John B. Townsend II, spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic.

Focus on safety

A survey by the MIT AgeLab and the Hartford Financial Services Group found that the older drivers get, the more confident they are of their driving ability. Drivers 75 or older were twice as likely to say they will drive into their 90s as those 65 to 74.

"Safe driving is about ability, not age," said Jodi Olshevski, a gerontologist at Hartford Financial. "Recent public attention has focused on taking away the keys from older drivers, but we believe it's time to change that conversation."

Pauline Hawkins, who was born in the waning days of Woodrow Wilson's administration, would rather not have her age published because, she says, "it's not about age" when it comes to driving.

"Driving doesn't bother me in the least," said Hawkins, who moved to a senior citizens facility in Gaithersburg after a broken hip left her walking with a cane. "I don't need glasses to drive, and my doctors have never suggested I stop."

But she doesn't plan to drive forever.

"I'm not dense enough to think that the day's not going to come," she said cheerfully. "There's no point in being stubborn about it. Absolutely, I will quit."

Schaaf, who sometimes delivers meals for Meals on Wheels, said the behavior of other drivers worries her more than her ability to handle a car.

"I just don't trust those other drivers," she said. "If there's a white-haired lady in the car, they just go rushing by, and I don't drive so slowly. In fact, I got a speeding ticket from one of those speed camera things."

Loath to take the Capital Beltway, Schaaf uses a "back roads" route to Arlington County when she visits her daughter.

"We had an argument this Thanksgiving," Schaaf said. "My daughter says I should let her drive. She says it's not about my driving, it's about that I have to carry heavy things to the car."

It's challenging to find the right moment to raise the driving issue with a parent, Townsend said.

"Many people find it hard to talk to an aging parent about whether it is safe for them to continue to drive," Townsend said. "Not only is it a reversal of roles, it is also a thorny and emotional issue. The fact is, older drivers, no matter how gracefully they age, are resentful of the insinuation that they are in a state of decrepitude."

Aging in place

Even in a county such as Montgomery, which has an extensive network of shuttles, buses and taxis that provide door-to-door service for the elderly, many people are reluctant to give up the car keys.

"They're afraid of what might happen if they're without them," Dollins said. "Even if they don't drive it, that car is a last bastion of independence."

Although research has shown that older people overwhelmingly favor "aging in place," for those whose homes make them dependent on a car to reach services, there ought to be other housing options in their communities, said Schwartz, of the Coalition for Smarter Growth. The region isn't without such places. He gave two dozen examples, including Dupont Circle and Capitol Hill in the District and parts of Arlington, Bethesda, Silver Spring, Falls Church, Riverdale Park and Hyattsville.

"Yes, Old Town Alexandria and parts of D.C. are walkable communities," he said. "But we need to add more mixed-use, walkable developments in the suburbs so that seniors can downsize and still remain within their communities."

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