License For Danger: How Old Is Too Old To Drive?

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:

  • A. Tsao

    We require people to take a behind the wheel test to get their first driver’s license. How about making it a requirement for those after 65 to also have a behind the wheel test to renew? And also require that doctor report patients who are medically unable to continue driving and have them retest as well.

    • laurie209

      At 65? This is the new 50. Most people are still working at this age. My guess is that you are in your twenties or thirties and can’t imagine anyone older than 50 behind the wheel.

      • A. Tsao

        Actually I’m 62 and know people even younger who shouldn’t be driving.

  • Betty Cordoza

    The basic premise of your article is fine, but the example you chose is wrong! Donna McClure, age seventy-eight, did NOT loose her driver’s license because of issues related to her age. As you state in your article and the piece that aired on the Ten O’Clock News, Monday, February 20, DONNA McCLURE HAD HER LICENSE SUSPENDED BECAUSE OF LAPSES OF CONCIOUSNESS CAUSED BY HER CHRONIC ALCOHOLISM! That can happen to a Chronic Alcolholic of ANY AGE. DO YOUR HOMEWORK, Channel 13 and Laura Cole.
    By the way, New Hampshire requires a driver to start taking a drving test at age 75 years, and every five years afterwards, to keep their driver’s license.

    • Producer Shawn

      Thank you for your comment. That’s exactly the point — it’s NOT about age, contrary to the beliefs of many.

  • david

    what about teen drivers or those who dui? the focus is too much on aging drivers, perhaps and maybe. would be interesting to see stats comparing seniors by age range to others by age range beginning with the very young. everyone should have to take a driving test regardless of age every other license renewal. but that would probably mean higher taxes of fees to fund the processes at all dmv locations.

  • laurie209

    Now lets hear the statistics for drunk drivers, teen drivers, unlicensed drivers and foreign drivers who can’t read the road signs.
    I believe that one can tell when they should stop driving. Most people have common sense. And, unfortunately, there is not enough low cost transportation to help older people to get out and do the shopping. Many are on a fixed income.

    • Shea Cullen

      Seniors First is a non-profit senior services agency that offers no charge transportation services to seniors living in Placer County.Please visit

    • A. Tsao

      Not true – there are a lot of older people who don’t realize how bad they have gotten AND they don’t want to give up the freedom that driving affords them regardless if it endangers others.

  • Nancy

    Just because a senior citizen is involved in a motor vehicle collision does not mean it was that persons fault. Statistics can say anything someone wants to make theem say. Look at the facts and situations. Don’t give generalities.

  • Nancy

    I would like to know what percent of the seniors in the statistics of deaths and injuries were drivers and what percent were passengers. Also look at teen driving, dui driving, cell phone & texting & other distracted driving. Look at the people who are on prescription drugs and should not be behind the wheel and those who are too tired to be driving. I think one category is being singled out.

  • Ron

    Obviously no one here has had to deal with the DMV with this issue. We had to stop my dad from driving (he keep getting lost) and contacted the DMV about it. At first they were totally inept and when they finally did act it was in the most arrogant, rude and offensive manner possible.

  • Philip Fitch

    My mother is 86 and she is a very safe driver. Safer than most young drivers burning up the road. She never drives at night and most of the time she has passenger looking to the left side for her just for reinsurance. I have been concerned with this issue for some time now when it comes to my mother driving. But when I get in the car with her, my concern go’s away. She is very alert when it comes to driving and has never had a accident or a ticket ever. But she is not the average 86 year old, and still has a full time job and can run circles around most people.

  • nothingchanges

    • nothingchanges

      The old lady swerve driving from “Ferris Bueller’s day off”

  • sassafras

    Insurance companys are the only ones who can give an”intelligent” answer to that question, they have all the data regarding who has the most accidents and traffic tickets. When my mom turned 87 she told one of her great grandsons to dismantle her car and pick up so she would not drive. She had been driving since she was 15 yrs old and had never had an accident but did have a ticket or two or three. She was also a nurse who had cared for many seriusly injured accident victims in ICU

  • mike

    If you have ever lived or visited in a Del Web(or other)senior community you would know of many strange auto accidents that happen there, no serious injuries except incredible damage to property and business doors, windows , folks hitting the gas pedal instead of the brakes, young kids learning to drive sometimes do the same thing however.

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