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posted: 10/4/2012 5:52 AM

Editorial: Beyond just taking the car keys away

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The Daily Herald Editorial Board

As school was letting out in a Los Angeles neighborhood a few weeks ago, a 100-year-old driver accidentally backed his Cadillac onto a sidewalk and hit 11 people, seriously injuring four children.

One year ago and closer to home, an elderly woman drove her car through the doors of a bank in Rolling Meadows, injuring two tellers. Her foot slipped off the brake, she told police.

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Readers of reports like these often ask a natural question, Why were these two drivers licensed? In fact, the suburban story prompted a string of online comments ranging from statements of empathy to "get her off the road!"

As to the more visceral reaction, those with aging parents know it's not that simple.

While safe-driving laws have focused on teens in recent years, a retiring baby boom generation is elevating concerns about the safety of older drivers. True, we are living longer with better health, but aging still impedes brain processes, restricts cognitive ability and slows reaction times in most adults. At some point, many become unfit to drive.

According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the crash rate of older drivers begins to climb in the 70s, with a sharper jump at age 80. The institute also predicts that the number of senior citizens involved in crashes will increase by 178 percent between 1999 and 2030. It's a safety issue not just for them but for others, and one that needs greater attention.

Families are the first line of protection, but there's more to the process than taking the car keys away from an elderly parent, which even when clearly necessary can be difficult, even gut-wrenching.

For their entire adult lives, boomers -- especially those in the suburbs -- have relied on cars for transportation. Seniors know driving gives them independence and greater control over their lives, and some who must give it up find their social interaction limited. Loneliness and depression often follow. In addition, the decision can weigh on younger parents as "Mom's taxi" becomes Grandma's, too.

But solutions also must come from other angles.

Illinois' licensing laws for people over 75, who are required to take a road test for renewal, already are among the strictest in the nation. Sure, there may still be room for improvement, but the laws must recognize that being older than, say, 75 doesn't necessarily mean someone isn't capable of driving safely, and a range of other factors must be considered.

For one, doctors could be more involved. A recent study in Canada found that serious crash injuries drop when doctors warn patients they may be medically unfit to drive. But there is a disincentive for doctors to do so, according to the study, as one in five older drivers who were warned changed doctors. Still, doctors have the responsibility to tell longtime patients opinions they may not want to hear.

Public policy should reflect the needs of seniors who become more immobile, particularly in transit-starved suburban areas. As more seniors prefer to age "in place," transportation solutions such as the new "call-n-ride" service offered in some Northwest suburbs, can provide more independence.

Law enforcement plays a role, too. A citation in a crash or fender bender may be the wake-up call an older driver needs, and sympathetic officers who issue only warnings to seniors may actually do them a disservice.

Capable drivers in their 50s or 60s should begin to prepare now for the time when they cannot drive anymore by starting conversations with their own children or other relatives. With thoughtful planning, families and communities can allow senior citizens dignity and self-respect in solving transportation problems.

But a recognition by seniors themselves will always be the first step.

They can look to Jerry Wiseman of Schaumburg, who at 69 took a refresher driving course with his wife and now strives to take extra care behind the wheel. "We'll be ready when it's time for one of us to stop," he said in a recent Associated Press story. Such an attitude could be a lifesaver.

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