The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

83-year-old woman’s crash with Amish buggy renews calls for retesting older drivers

A buggy is parked outside of co-op’s loading dock and icehouse in Doylesburg, Pa., April 2. (Scott Rodd)
Placeholder while article actions load

An 83-year-old woman’s minor collision with an Amish buggy in Missouri — just months after a fatal crash involving another buggy — has renewed debate about whether older drivers should be required to undergo periodic reevaluation of their fitness to drive.

Clarissa R. Smith, of Licking, Mo., struck the rear of a buggy carrying three Amish teenagers about 6:30 p.m. on Sunday, according to authorities and local media. No one was injured in the crash. But the accident stirred discussion in the small city (3,098) because of Smith’s involvement in a crash in September that took the life of a young Amish woman.

Public records from the Missouri State Highway Patrol show Smith’s 2001 Mercury Sable struck the rear of a horse-drawn, four-wheel buggy, fatally injuring Mattie E. Miller, 29, a pregnant newlywed. Miller, who was ejected from the buggy, died of head injuries three days after the Sept. 1 crash, authorities said. The unborn child did not survive.

After Sunday’s nonfatal crash, several readers of the Licking News’s Facebook page called for Smith to face prosecution or license revocation. Others blamed the Amish for driving buggies on roads designed for automobiles. Several urged sympathy for who Kathi Smith-Ramsey called a “sweet lil old 83 year old woman who would NEVER maliciously hurt another human!!!”

In defending her, Smith-Ramsey also said Smith had eye troubles — an allegation Smith declined to discuss. In an interview Wednesday, she rejected the idea she or other older drivers should be required to undergo additional testing as they age.

“I think there’s a lot of older people that drive better than younger people,” Smith said. She said she had no plans to surrender her driver’s license.

“I have driven all my life, and I’ve never had an accident of any kind until we got the people that moved in here that’s got the horse-drawn buggies. I think the slow traffic and the normal traffic doesn’t mix,” she said. “That’s all I’m going to say. It’s hard to talk about it.”

The Licking News has since removed the posting about the crash from its Facebook page “due to the number of hurtful and inflammatory comments,” Katie Anderson, its managing editor, said in a message.

Older drivers with history of falls at greater risk for crashes

As U.S. demographic changes create a society with a higher proportion of older Americans, the issues surrounding elderly drivers are likely to grow, too. AARP says the proportion of licensed drivers 65 and older increased from 61 percent in 1980 to 80 percent in 2003. That was about 1 in 7 licensed drivers in 2003. By 2029, as the last baby boomers hit 65, the ratio will be closer to 1 in 4.

Older people are, as a group, relatively safe drivers, AARP says. They have lower rates of crashes than younger drivers, higher rates of seat belt use and the lowest percentages of crashes involving alcohol. But they also suffer fatalities in crashes at a higher rate because of increased fragility. As we age, our bodies weaken, and so do many of the skills necessary for driving.

In Illinois, older drivers are tested more — and crash rates have dropped

State laws vary widely on whether those older drivers are required to undergo additional medical evaluation or retesting to keep their licenses. Some, such as Arkansas and Delaware, have no additional requirements for older drivers while others, such as California, require reevaluation after drivers reach a certain age, according to a 2012 roundup by Claims Journal, a publication covering the insurance business. Missouri requires drivers who are 70 or older to renew their licenses in person at the state’s licensing office and undergo a basic vision test. The license must also be renewed more often than those for younger drivers.

In  1998, Missouri adopted a law that provided a voluntary legal process for family members, police, physicians and others to report drivers for possible reevaluation and potential license revocation because of concerns about their fitness to drive.

The law has been effective in persuading the most vulnerable drivers to give up driving, a 2008 study by AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found. Half of the drivers who were reported for further evaluation failed to pursue the required medical evaluation, and their licenses were revoked. More than half of those remaining had their licenses revoked. But many of the reported drivers were also among the oldest on the road: Their mean age was 80.

Older drivers to get greater scrutiny in Virginia

Texas County Coroner Marie Lasater, who investigated the Miller death, said Wednesday she sought to have Smith evaluated for driving fitness following the fatal crash but, because no charges were filed, there was no official mechanism to trigger a mandatory review.

“In the course of my career I’ve seen several accidents involving older drivers,” she said in an interview. “I’ve long felt that elderly drivers should be retested regularly — I’m not sure what sort of schedule.”