When You're Too Old To Drive

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Jean Jennings knew the street she drove on like the back of her hand.

In 22 years, she'd navigated Southern Road to her job at Organ Stop Pizza in Mesa thousands of times.

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The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, in its 2004 report, chronicled the facts of senior motorists: Drivers 55 and older cause 21 percent of automobile fatalities and 17 percent of nonfatal accidents.

But she also knew her eyesight wasn't so good. The imprinted numbers on her paycheck seemed foggy.

Then one evening four years ago, a near miss jolted her to reality. It was late at night, around 11 p.m.

"I must have gone to sleep for a minute," she said. "I could see a car; it was full of people. I swerved. I was able to stop before I hit them."

Afterward Jennings, now 86, made a lifesaving decision.

"I used to drive all over the place," Jennings said. "I swore when I was getting older I would quit driving. It's one of the hardest things of old age to give up. It leaves you dependent on everyone else."

She tore up her driver's license and sold her Mercury Cougar to a local sanitation worker.

By forcing herself to make that sacrifice, she avoided the kind of tragedy that occurred March 2 when an 84-year-old driver pulled into oncoming traffic, causing an accident and killing a Payson man, Larry Peterson.

As the car pulled out in front of him, Peterson tried to slide his motorcycle to avoid collision, but he died instead and his wife sustained severe leg and jaw injuries.

The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, in its 2004 report, chronicled the facts of senior motorists: Drivers 55 and older cause 21 percent of automobile fatalities and 17 percent of nonfatal accidents.

Hard to let go of the wheel

Still, Jennings, who suffers from macular degeneration, winced at the end of her driving era.

As a young woman, it afforded her self-sufficiency.

In those days, the military moved her husband, a Navy man, to all parts of the country and she had to see him somehow.

So, during the early 1940s when few could afford air travel, Jennings and her two young boys hopped into their old Ford and off they went.

"I loved it," she said. "I really get depressed (when I think of never driving again), because I've driven for so many years. If my eyes hadn't gotten bad I'd still be driving."

But the stubbornness that keeps senior drivers behind the wheel is dangerous, especially in a community where 30 percent of its residents are older than 65.

Edna Bebout's 78-year-old husband is going through the struggle right now. He doesn't want to give up his place in the driver's seat, but his grandchildren are hesitant passengers.

"He doesn't drive a lot, but when he does he worries us," she said. "He took our grandson to school and he pulled out in front of someone. My grandson suggested taking his license out of his wallet and not giving it back."

More accidents

Payson police officers say senior-induced fender benders and serious accidents are on the rise.

"As you get older, you start losing your reaction time, " Sgt. Todd Bramlet said. "Older folks get confused."

The same day Peterson died, Bramlet said three other incidents involving seniors occurred: two 68-year-old drivers collided on Manzanita Street and a 70-year-old woman, pushed the gas instead of the brakes and ran over a pedestrian just a few hundred feet away from the emergency personnel working on Peterson's accident.

But the 71-year-old woman arrested for driving under the influence represents the most rampant problem among seniors: taking prescription medications and getting behind the wheel.

"The prescription might be legit," said Detective Jason Hazelo, of the Payson Police Department. "Narcotics inhibit the individual's motor skills."

Sleeping pills, muscle relaxers, tranquilizers and analgesics rank high on the impairment list, especially Ambien, a hypnotic used to treat insomnia, and the ever-popular synthetic morphine painkiller, hydrocodone.

Seniors, or anyone for that matter, need to ask their pharmacist or doctor about the side effects of their medication, Hazelo said, and if the directions warn against operating heavy machinery, don't drive.

Jim Serfling, local AARP driver safety instructor, encourages senior motorists to update their driving skills.

"One of the things we emphasize are the changes that take place as we get older," he said.

To sign up for training, contact AARP at (888) AARP-NOW.

The Payson Senior Center also offers affordable transportation. A round trip outing is $4, additional stops cost more. To schedule a pickup, call (928) 474-4876.

15 signs you should stop driving

1. Feeling less comfortable and more nervous or fearful while driving.

2. Difficulty staying in the lane of travel.

3. More frequent "close calls."

4. More frequent dents, scrapes, on the car or on fences, mailboxes, garage doors, curbs etc.

5. Trouble judging gaps in traffics at intersections and on highway entrance/exit ramps.

6. Other drivers honking at you more often; more instances when you are angry at other drivers.

7. Friends or relatives not wanting to drive with you.

8. Getting lost more often.

9. Difficulty seeing the sides of the road when looking straight ahead (i.e. cars or people seem to come "out of nowhere" more frequently).

10. Trouble paying attention to or violating signals, road signs and pavement markings.

11. Slower response to unexpected situations; trouble moving foot from gas to brake pedal or confusing the two pedals.

12. Easily distracted or hard to concentrate while driving.

13. Hard to turn around to check over shoulder while backing up or changing lanes.

14. Medical conditions or medications that may be increasingly affecting your ability to handle the car safely.

15. More traffic tickets or "warnings" by traffic or law enforcement officers in the last year or two.

Courtesy of AARP

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