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Age Catches Up With Drivers

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Drivers 70 and older accounted for 8.1% of

accidents with

fatalities in 2002.The number of drivers over 70 is projected to jump to 30.7 million by 2020.Cindy Pond will never forget the last time her dad gave her a ride.

''I thought I was going to die.

''He made left turns in front of no fewer than three cars. I was screaming, 'Dad! Dad! That guy's going to hit us!' I was just in a panic. He made incorrect lane changes, cut people off. He nearly rear-ended people.''

And those, she says, were just ''the major things.''

Ever since then, Pond, 51, of Fort Wayne, Ind., has been on a mission to get her nearly 95-year-old father, Carl Pond, to stop driving. She got his license revoked in May but had to take away his car this month.

He may represent an extreme; many seniors curtail or give up driving voluntarily when age-related ailments, such as poor vision or hearing, slow reflexes or loss of mental acuity, make it unsafe.

Drivers 70 and older accounted for 8.1% of accidents with fatalities in 2002 and 11.8% of driver fatalities, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says.

But last week's accident in Santa Monica, Calif., in which an 86-year-old driver killed 10 people and injured dozens, is prompting a national discussion about what to do when a senior's driving years should be over but aren't.

''It is taboo to talk about giving up the keys,'' says Jason King of the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, which is running a pilot program called GrandDriver in metropolitan Washington, D.C. ''We are married to our cars. We've all got to start recognizing that this is going to become a serious public health issue if we don't talk about it.'' That's especially true as baby boomers age and the senior population booms.

In 2000, there were 18.9 million drivers over 70, the safety administration says. That number is projected to jump to 30.7 million by 2020, King says.

But giving up the keys has both psychological and physical implications.

''It's a very, very primal issue,'' says Gary Barg, editor in chief of Today's Caregiver magazine, based in Hollywood, Fla. ''Driving is the last vestige of self-respect that a senior has. They got their keys when they became an adult, and now their kids are taking their keys away and saying to them, 'You're no longer an adult. You're no longer a viable member of the community.' ''

''If you don't drive, you're pretty limited to staying at your house,'' says Roberta Timberlake, 79, of Arlington, Va., who avoids major highways, night driving and rush-hour traffic.

But halting driving altogether for many seniors means losing their independence, especially for those in suburban and rural areas with poor public transportation, says Joseph Coughlin, founding director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology AgeLab in Cambridge, Mass.

''As boomers age, they're finding they're going to be sentenced to isolation in the very icon of their success: their suburban house,'' Coughlin says.

Timberlake calls herself ''your little old lady who drives to the grocery store once a week and to church on Sunday.'' She has friends who ''probably shouldn't be driving but continue to do so. It's a matter of losing their independence.''

''Believe me, I sympathize,'' says Pond, who works with seniors as a resource outreach coordinator for aging and in-home services in northeastern Indiana.

''But you should not put your independence above the safety of your community,'' she says. ''Most reasonable people eventually say, 'Well, maybe I shouldn't be driving anymore.' I think my experience with my dad is kind of unusual -- but it is what can happen.''

When faced with the same issue, some caregivers avoid it. Others take desperate measures, such as removing the distributor cap so the car won't run or secretly making off with the car and telling mom or dad it was stolen, Barg says.

At first, Pond tried to take the straightforward approach. It didn't work. So she enlisted support. Experts advise caregivers to speak directly with the driver in question. If that doesn't work, they advise going to others, such as doctors, the department of motor vehicles or even a member of the clergy.

The American Medical Association has been developing a 200-page guide to assessing older drivers. It is due by the end of the month and aims to help physicians make recommendations to help their patients drive safely.

But sometimes discussion is futile, as Pond found with her father.

''He would not listen to his family doctor, his optometrist, an eye surgeon, two cornea specialists. They all spoke about it with him. Even his minister. Nope. Wouldn't listen.''

Finally, she got a doctor to send her a letter saying her father was unfit for driving. She sent it to the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles. On May 9, her dad took and failed a driving test. His license was revoked, but Pond says it shouldn't have been that hard. ''States need to step up to the plate and help people like me get parents off the road.''

DMV regulations vary widely. Some states require seniors to take vision tests when they reach a certain age. Others don't; some states have laws that specifically prohibit older people from being treated differently.

Some, such as Coughlin, are calling on the DMV to develop and implement special road tests for seniors. But given budget constraints these days, it is unlikely to happen, he says.

''Legislators don't want to pick this up because they've got to invest money in the agency we love to hate, the DMV. No one wants to stand in line longer, and no one wants to pay higher fees for a test,'' he says.

If not for her actions, Pond is convinced her father would ''still be driving. And he might have eventually killed or injured somebody. There's no doubt in my mind.''

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© Copyright 2003 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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