Two horrific Auburn crashes in a week spur senior driving debate

By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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How old is too old to drive? The issue of seniors and license restrictions for elderly drivers reared its head in Auburn again this past week with two horrific crashes days apart. A fatal crash followed by a near-fatal collision less than a week later caused by octogenarian drivers pulling out into traffic has rekindled the debate over different rules for senior drivers based on age. Described Thursday by his widow, Joanne, as an “excellent driver,” 84-year-old Roy Inman was killed Feb. 17 trying to cross Highway 49. The driver of the other vehicle was treated and released from hospital the same day. Then, this past Wednesday, Placer County Sheriff’s Deputy Bradley Gravely, 26, suffered major injuries after a car driven by 83-year-old Hugh Morrill of Auburn crossed into oncoming traffic on Bell Road while exiting a medical clinic. Gravely was listed in serious condition in hospital Thursday while Morrill walked away from his car. California has 673,350 drivers who are 80 or older, according to state Department of Motor Vehicles statistics compiled last month. The total includes 69,555 licensed drivers 90 or older. The number of centenarians still on the road was unavailable. Isaac Ordaz of Auburn said he’d like to see all senior drivers take regular tests before their licenses are renewed. Ordaz, 18, said he’s particularly cognizant of senior drivers when he’s trying to get to Placer High School on time. “They slow me down,” Ordaz said. “I’m all for safe driving but sometimes it’s a little excessive.” Auburn’s Chione Song, 18, said he’d once been driving when a senior ran a red light and also has been slowed by elderly drivers slowing to 25 mph on Auburn Folsom Road. He’d like to see restrictions on licenses for older drivers, including bans on driving after dark when necessary. But 21-year-old Jesus Mendoza of Auburn said he’s had no problems on the road with senior drivers. “I’m probably a danger to them,” Mendoza said. For many drivers dealing with fading eyesight, sleep apnea and slowing reflexes, among other challenges of aging, the idea of losing the freedom and self-reliance that comes with a driver’s license is a subject to avoid. At 82, former 18-wheel, long-haul trucker Ron Langille said he isn’t ready to turn in his license any time soon. A couple of years ago, Langille was diagnosed with a back problem and had taken a prescription pill. The events after that are a bit foggy for the Weimar-area resident, but Langille said he passed out in his truck in a parking lot and was taken to hospital by ambulance. “I haven’t taken a pill since and I’ve changed doctors,” Langille said. He also had to take the Department of Motor Vehicles relicensing test and passed. “I haven’t thought about not driving,” Langille said. “I couldn’t live without driving because my home is too remote.” Nancy Kling, 78, of Loomis, said the idea of not driving is something she’s not looking forward to. It would mean uprooting to another community to be nearer her family, she said. “It’s a major life change but if they felt I wasn’t safe, I would definitely go along,” Kling said. Officer Dave Martinez, of the California Highway Patrol’s Newcastle office, said investigations into both accidents in Auburn are ongoing. Wednesday’s Bell Road accident could have happened to anyone and any decision on pulling a license would take time, he said. The Department of Motor Vehicles does re-testing so the CHP won’t be the ultimate decision-maker, Martinez said. That has led to tragedies like the death of a Lodi Police officer in a crash caused by an elderly driver. Months earlier, the officer had stopped the same elderly man for a traffic violation and recommended a reexamination, he said. “Sometimes you take the right steps but you don’t have the final say,” he said. John Locher, the Department of Motor Vehicles’ senior driver ombudsman, said that by law, the department can’t discriminate against older drivers on the basis of age. And he questions why media and many younger drivers focus on elderly drivers. “Who’s to say that some people 16 are too young to drive?” Locher said. On a near-daily basis, Locher said he’ll run the driving record of someone aged 85 or 90 years old and it will only show a name, address and date of birth. “Run a 16, 17 or 20-year-old and it’s not uncommon to see numerous violations,” Locher said. “Who’s safer? It’s clearly the senior driver driving more slowly because reflexes aren’t as quick. They’re annoying certainly but less dangerous than someone with a Superman complex.” In the Auburn area, Seniors First transportation coordinator Amy Bakker assists many elderly drivers who end up without a license because they couldn’t pass a re-examination, have caused an accident or even had their keys taken away by a well-meaning relative. “We like them to research transportation options with us before they reach that stage,” Bakker said. “It’s difficult. Seniors don’t like to rely on other people and having a taxi take them is not an option for many because it can be expensive. Our goal is to keep them independent but there is definitely a time when they should explore other options.” -------------------------------------------- Senior driving on the upswing - 34 million people, or 13 percent of the total U.S. population, are 65 or older - 31 million are licensed drivers – an increase of 19 percent over a decade - In 2008, 183,000 people age 65 or older were injured in traffic crashes - Older drivers make up 15 percent of all licensed drivers - Seniors account for 15 percent of all traffic fatalities - In California, senior driver involvement in fatal crashes is 9 percent - 14.2 percent of California fatalities in traffic crashes are seniors - Of all adult drivers, older drivers involved in fatal crashes had the lowest proportion of total drivers with 0.08 percent blood-alcohol levels - 77 percent of all older occupants of passenger vehicles involved in fatal crashes were using restraints at the time of the crash, compared to 63 percent for other adult occupants 18 to 64 - In two-vehicle fatal crashes involving an older driver and a younger driver, the vehicle driven by the older person was nearly twice as likely to be the one that was struck - In 22 percent of fatal crashes, the older driver was turning left – four times more often than the younger driver Source: National Highway Transportation Safety Administration