Latest News

How old is too old to drive? There are warning signs

 Ernest Simar, 80, of Pass Christian drove himself and his wife, Margaret, 79, to Edgewater Mall on Thursday May 5, 2016.
JOHN FITZHUGH/SUN HERALD Ernest Simar, 80, of Pass Christian drove himself and his wife, Margaret, 79, to Edgewater Mall on Thursday May 5, 2016. SUN HERALD

Bay St. Louis Councilwoman Wendy McDonald was seriously injured last week and another person had minor injuries when a car hit them outside of Our Lady of the Gulf Catholic Church.

Police Chief Mike DeNardo said it was an accident ­-- an 88-year-old driver pressed his accelerator instead of the brake pedal.

To some, the driver's age raises a sensitive and tricky question: How old is too old to drive?

There is no age limit on driving in Mississippi or most other states.

Unless something happens to challenge your ability to drive, you can continue to renew your license.

But highway safety officials and senior advocates say an older driver is not necessarily an unsafe driver.

The safety of elders on the road has been a concern for public safety officials for years, and increasingly since 2003. That's the year an 86-year-old man drove through a barricade at a Santa Monica, Calif., farmers market. He hit his gas pedal by mistake. Ten people died and 63 were injured.

Older drivers the Sun Herald spoke with Thursday said they're already taking safety precautions, such as cutting out long-distance trips.

Story of a woman, 93

Mary Elizabeth Stevens of Biloxi had been driving to Miami once a year for the annual high school reunion of students she once taught.

She's 93. She stopped making the long drive two years ago.

"My children said they didn't feel safe with me doing that anymore," Stevens said.

Stevens, a volunteer for several area agencies, routinely drives from Pascagoula to Bay St. Louis.

Most days, she takes a short drive to her favorite fast-food restaurant for a free cup of coffee and a visit with friends.

"I take the safest route," she said. "I try to make only right-hand turns."

Three days a week, she drives to the Donal Synder Community Center for a fitness class. On Wednesday nights, she drives to First Methodist Church of Gulfport for choir practice. On Sundays, she drives to church.

She drives for volunteer work. And sometimes she drives to the IP Casino, where she ushers at concerts as a service project for the Gulf Coast Women's Center for Nonviolence.

"I love people and I love being around people," she said. "I love staying busy."

She had grown accustomed to heavy traffic from her years in Miami, where she taught at the University of Miami until she retired.

She said she's not ready to give up her license yet.

"It would mean I'd lose my independence," she said. "But I'm willing to think about it in the future."

Story of a man, 80

Ernest Simar, 80, said he and his wife had logged 400,000 miles, pulling their camper. They were living in Evangeline, La., but gave up long-distance trips after moving to Pass Christian three years ago. He uses a cane to walk but said he feels safe to drive.

Simar said two mishaps with 18-wheelers changed his mind about long-distance driving. An 18-wheeler sideswiped him on a highway.

Another time, he said, the draft of a speeding 18-wheeler caused his camper "to turn around and meet me."

"It's the 18-wheelers," he said. "You never know what they will do. And it's the way other people drive."

His wife Margaret, 70, said she rarely drives; she no longer has the physical strength to shift gears or handle a car.

The Simars drove to Edgewater Mall in Biloxi on Thursday. In the past, they've made trips as far as Las Vegas. The trip to the mall "was a long drive," Margaret Simar said.

Having 'the talk'

Ernest Simar said he has no plans to quit driving.

"It's what I do," he said.

Talking to an aging person about giving up their keys is one of the hardest things a family member or health professional can do, said psychologist Julie Teater.

"It represents a loss of independence," she said. "You literally become dependent on others for everything, such as church, grocery shopping, seeing family and doctors appointments.

"People feel violated. However, not taking it away endangers the person and the public."

Teater said she sometimes does cognitive testing for a recommendation on whether a person should drive or not.

It's a difficult discussion but it's best to take a straightforward approach to help elders realize their limitations, she said.

"No one thinks they will hit someone or hurt someone," she said.

Warning signs

Safety officials and senior advocates for say the aging process can bring changes older drivers should consider:

Reflexes may not be as quick. Declining vision can make it hard to judge distances, and see road signs and traffic devices. Medications may cause drowsiness or other impairment. Nerves can get frazzled by heavy traffic. And dementia can make driving more frustrating and dangerous.

Dents on a car can be a telltale sign. So can traffic tickets, warnings or fender-benders.

Experts say riding with an older driver can show if they're beginning to have problems.

Making abrupt lane changes? Slamming on brakes or accelerating quickly? Drifting into other lanes? Forgetting to signal or ignoring red lights and stop signs? Or confusing the brake pedal for the gas pedal?

Giving up the keys

Mississippi Highway Patrol Capt. Johnny Poulos said his friends often ask him to talk to one of their parents about giving up their keys.

"It's a very sensitive issue," he said.

A driving examiner has discretion to check on older people who show up for license renewal but appear to be disoriented. They may be asked to take a road test.

When an aging driver shows warning signs but won't listen to family members, there are steps that can be taken.

The state Department of Public Safety's Driver Services Division and its medical review board can decide if a driver has health or cognitive problems or an increasingly poor driving record that puts them at risk on the road.

Doctors, law enforcement officers and family members can notify Driver Services of suspected problems. The process could involve a hearing test and the driver could be required to have an eye exam, road test and cognitive test.

"Driving is not a right," Poulos said. "It's a privilege.

"There just comes a point sometimes when a family has to step in there and deal with it. Sometimes older people are not going to take it on themselves to say, 'I can't drive anymore because I don't want to hurt or kill someone else or myself.'

"Driving becomes the last thing they're cable of doing independently and when it's taken away from them, it's hurtful. But it's about saving lives. Theirs and others."

To contact the MDPS Driver Services medical hearing administrator, call (601) 987-1231.

More older drivers

The number of licensed drivers age 65 and older nationwide is expected to increase to 40 million by 2020, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Its statistics show senior drivers account for 14 percent of traffic fatalities and 9 percent of pedestrian deaths.

NHTSA is conducting a five-year plan to make senior drivers safer and help them accept becoming a non-driver if necessary. The plan includes making signs more visible, protecting left-turn lanes and creating "cue" cards for law enforcement and health-care professionals to use to refer questionable drivers to a medical-review team.

Related stories from Biloxi Sun Herald