Reporting Laura Cole
WEST SACRAMENTO (CBS13) – There’s a question we’ll all have to face one day, either for ourselves or for a loved one: when is it too old to drive?
Bill Mattos and his daughter Pam Mendelsohn relive that day in October 2009 over and over. Mattos said, “I took her to work everyday and picked her up because I didn’t want her walking in the parking lot at night and this happened.” Mendelsohn said, “Broad daylight in the market.”
Mattos was on his way to drop off his wife Jewell at work and made a pit stop at a West Sacramento Raley’s store. Jewell ran in and when she came out, she was hit by a car. 78 year old Donna McClure was behind the wheel. Mattos rushed over to help his wife along with another witness.
Mattos tells the story choking back tears of sorry, “Is she breathing? He said yeah. Then I ran back and I pulled my sweatshirt off and I handed it to that guy and he put it under her head.” Jewell died that next day at the hospital. Her story, a tragedy that happens more than you might think.
In 2003, 86 year old Russ Weller drove his car into a crowded LA farmer’s market, killing 10 people and injuring 70 others. Weller was convicted of vehicular manslaughter and given probation because the judge thought he was too sick for prison.
As for McClure, she drove on a suspended license after the DMV and her doctor warned her not to because of her lapses in consciousness brought on by chronic alcoholism. She was sentenced to a year in county jail.
McClure said, “I’ll never forget that day.” She says she drove on a suspended license because she just didn’t think about it and she says she’d been driving for many years.
So how old is too old to drive? John Locher with the DMV says they never use the term “too old.” He says, “It is not about age, it is about skill and ability.” Locher says it is just not practical to put an age limit on when someone must stop driving. He says it would be age discrimination.
Doctor Pradeep Mohanroy, who is a geriatrics specialist at Kaiser Permanente says, “As you age you lose reaction time, so if you make a split second decision on the road, the quickness is compromised.” He says, it is not necessarily about age; it is about what is going on in the brain. Mohanroy says, “You lose the ability to multi task.”
But giving up the keys to the car can be difficult for seniors, especially after enjoying the freedom and independence they’ve offered over a lifetime. McClure says there is little she can do to convince her peers to stop getting behind the wheel. She says, “They won’t believe me. A senior feels they can drive. They have been driving for years like I did. They won’t believe me.
Her answer is an unfortunate reality for many and a message Jewell’s family wished someone would have driven home to McClure.
Pam Mendelsohn says, “This woman didn’t care about anybody except for herself and her foolish pride.” Mattos says he is still having a tough time moving on without his wife.
As for McClure, she is living with the consequences of her actions behind bars telling other seniors to put down the keys.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration 5,288 people age 65 and older were killed in 2009 and 187,000 were injured in traffic crashes. These older individuals made up 16% of all traffic fatalities and 8% of all people injured in traffic crashes during the year.
In two-vehicle fatal crashes involving an older driver and a younger driver, the vehicle driven by the older person was 1.7 times more likely to be the one that was struck (58% and 34%, respectively).
Other interesting facts from the NHTSA:
• Among the 65-and-older age group, from 2000 to 2009, the total population increased by 13 percent (increased for males by 16% and for females by 10%). However, driver fatalities for this age group declined by 18 percent (decreased for males by 16% and for females by 22%).
• There were 32 million licensed older drivers in 2008 (latest data available)— a 20-percent increase from 1999. In contrast, the total number of licensed drivers increased by only 11 percent from 1999 to 2008. Older drivers made up 15 percent of all licensed drivers in 2008, compared with 14 percent in 1999.
• Most traffic fatalities involving older drivers in 2009 occurred during the daytime (81%), occurred on weekdays (71%), and involved other vehicles (69%).
We have assembled some helpful links related to senior driving: