Anna Lawson can remember the days of her youth, when she was 17 and would cruise around Toledo with her friends, enjoying the scenery and the thrill of driving.
“It was fun, honey,” she says, her eyes brightening. “Oh, it was exciting. I just loved to get behind the wheel of a car.”
But the 85-year-old Toledoan no longer thinks driving is a privilege or a joy. She has to deal with fatigue and the difficulty of seeing at night. And the youngsters don't obey traffic rules, she said.
“It is not fun anymore. It's horrible,” Mrs. Lawson said recently as she visited with friends at the Senior Center, Inc., on Jefferson Avenue downtown.
Mrs. Lawson is like many seniors who struggle with the need to keep driving as they grow older. In some cases, the results have been deadly. In the last few weeks alone, authorities say at least three fatal accidents were caused by elderly drivers:
In 2001, Ohio authorities blamed senior drivers - those 55 or older - with causing more than 2,900 accidents in northwest Ohio that left 20 people dead and more than 1,200 injured.
The accident rate in Lucas County is among the worst in the state for senior drivers.
“There is no doubt the aging process affects your driving ability,” said Gwen Neundorfer, coordinator of the Lucas County Traffic Safety Program, which coordinates the DRIVE 55 driving classes for seniors along with the AARP.
Seniors deal with a number of issues that could affect their driving. They may be on medication. Their range of motion may be limited, making it more difficult to see what's around them. They may tire more easily, Ms. Neundorfer said.
And, she said, it isn't 1950 anymore.
“The rules of driving have changed, and the roads are more crowded,” she said.
But there is hope. Most of the problems that accompany aging, such as decreasing eyesight and increasing fear, can be alleviated. The driving classes are offered to help offset the effects of aging, she said.
There may be improvement, and Ms. Neundorfer believes the classes may be the reason. Though Lucas County was ranked the third worst in the state for senior driver crashes in 2001, that's an improvement compared to previous rankings. The county was the worst in 1999 and next-to-worst in 2000.
More individuals have taken the safety classes that help seniors become more comfortable on the road.
The classes teach everything from what to do in potential trouble spots - like parking lots, slippery roads, and sudden stops - to what signs mean and what to do in work zones.
Students take a driver's quiz at the beginning of the class and then retake it at the course's completion to see what they've learned, said instructor Ruth Morris, a retired optometrist.
“We tell them up front, ‘We don't teach you how to drive, you already know how to drive,'” Dr. Morris said, adding that many seniors end up admitting that they needed a refresher course.
Many insurance companies will give insurance breaks to individuals who attend the program. Those policies have helped increase class enrollment, Dr. Morris said.
“If you ask a senior to come, they resent it. But if you tell them they are going to get an insurance discount, they come and check it out,” she said.
Though age has made driving difficult for some, it is an important part of many seniors' lives, and many can't - and won't - give it up.
“It's the one thing they want to hold on to more than anything in the world; it's their ticket to independence and freedom,” Ms. Neundorfer said.
Toledoan Thomas Bondelier, who said he began driving 55 years ago at the age of 16, took the course out of curiosity and found it helpful.
“It was real good, very educational. They taught me how close to follow a car and how close not to follow a car, and what the signs and everything like that mean. Some of them I had missed before, and I didn't know what they were,” he said.
Though the numbers for other age groups are significantly higher - for example, 16 to 20-year-old drivers were to blame for 10 percent of all accidents in Ohio in 2001 - seniors do not drive as much as people in other age groups, Ms. Neundorfer said.
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation's Federal Highway Administration, people 65 and older made up 9 percent of the resident population in 1998 but accounted for 14 percent of all traffic fatalities and 18 percent of all pedestrian fatalities.
Ms. Neundorfer has a partial solution. “I would say there probably isn't anything that an older driver can do to be safer than take this class,” she said.
But in the meantime, she has some simple advice for those who don't feel 100 percent confident on the road. “If you don't like to drive on the expressway, you better plan a route that is not going to take you on the expressway. Don't get on there and drive 45,” she said.
While Mrs. Lawson acknowledges her own limitations - she tries to avoid highway driving and driving at night - she, like many seniors, can't avoid driving. “Driving is a necessity for me right now,” she said. “There's church, the senior center, the grocery store. I'm a busy lady ... and I just go, go, go.”