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Published: Friday, 7/18/2003

Seniors say age no barrier to driving

BY MICHAEL LOPRESTI
BLADE STAFF WRITER

When is a motorist's age at loggerheads with highway safety?

“It seems young people think that as we get older, we're not as good drivers,” 82-year-old Joe LaConey of Sylvania said.

Authorities are revisiting the issue since an 86-year-old man killed nine people and injured dozens more when he drove into a crowded farmers' market Wednesday in Santa Monica, Calif. The accident was the talk of the bingo group yesterday at the Sylvania Senior Center.

“It's a terrible tragedy,” Millie Page, a senior from Sylvania, said. But she believes the accident is the exception, and not the rule with senior drivers.

She and the other Sylvania seniors believe they should not be discriminated against because of the actions of one person. Many drive regularly, and those who live in isolated suburban and rural areas said their cars are their lifelines.

“If I didn't have a car, I wouldn't go anywhere,” said Bessie Morse, 84, of Sylvania.

“That's our independence, cars,” Diane Podgorski, 66, of Toledo, concurred.

Mr. LaConey said most seniors are more careful and more aware than their younger counterparts. But statistics tell a different story.

While senior citizens are no more likely to injure pedestrians or other drivers on the road, drivers 70 and older are 17 times more likely to be die in an automobile accident, according to AAA.

Other statistics show older drivers are safer than teens - at least until they reach 75 - and less likely than other drivers to drive drunk.

“It's tricky. You can't just as a matter of course say, `Once you reach 85, you can't drive anymore,'” said Susan Ferguson, senior vice president of research at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which is funded by auto insurers. “It would take driver's licenses away from people who are perfectly fine to drive.”

In 2001, 16 percent of drivers were 65 and older; by 2030, one in four is expected to be in that age group.

Many groups, including AARP, offer driving courses designed for the elderly.

The Sylvania Senior Center hosts AARP's 55 Alive/Mature Driving Program, an eight-hour course that updates the knowledge and skills of older drivers, and teaches them how to prevent traffic crashes and violations, and to maintain mobility and independence.

“I learned a lot,” said Ms. Morse, who recently completed the course. “I feel much more confident now.”

In addition to gaining confidence, some seniors may benefit financially from updating their driving skills. Legislation has been enacted in 34 states and the District of Columbia requiring all auto insurance companies conducting business in those states to offer a premium discount to graduates of state-approved driver-improvement courses.

While Ohio is not one of these states, elderly drivers may be eligible for voluntary discounts from their insurance company.

It is also increasingly common for states to impose stricter regulations in license renewals for the elderly. At least 21 states have requirements for older drivers, varying from more frequent license renewals to vision tests. Two states - New Hampshire and Illinois - require road tests for those 75 and older, while in Nevada, drivers 70 and older who renew licenses by mail must include a medical report.

Indiana requires renewal every three years (instead of four) for drivers 75 and older, but Ohio and Michigan have no such regulations on seniors' licenses.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.



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