- Jorge Milian Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Nowhere in Florida are there more drivers ages 80 and older than Palm Beach County, and it’s not even close.
So how old is too old to drive?
There isn’t a definitive answer, but also no shortage of opinions.
The debate gets stirred up any time a senior citizen is involved in a high-profile crash like the one that occurred July 31 in Boynton Beach. An 81-year-old driver in a Toyota Camry jumped a concrete parking barrier and plowed into two people waiting at an ATM, causing a 60-year-old woman to have her right leg amputated.
Louise Szakacs, the driver, told traffic homicide investigators she had no idea what she did to cause the crash. She was cited for careless driving.
Stories like that don’t scare Lauren Bates, 87, of Boynton Beach. Bates said he began driving a Model T Ford at age 10 and he hasn’t stopped motoring since, pointing out that he recently drove to Key West and back without any help.
“I’ll never quit,” Bates insisted.
In Florida, Bates won’t have to, as long as he renews his license every six years and passes a vision test. Drivers younger than 80 must renew licenses every eight years.
No matter how old someone gets, there is no requirement in Florida to pass a driving test in order to maintain driving privileges. Illinois is the only state that has a road-test provision for older drivers, beginning at 75.
Even older drivers in Palm Beach County wonder if the state’s laws regarding elderly motorists are too lenient, considering that the fatality rate among drivers into their 80s is higher than any age group except for the youngest motorists.
“I don’t think it would harm anything that if your license is up for renewal, you go in and have a driving test,” said Dede Kuchinsky, 72, of Boynton Beach. “Let’s see if you still know how to handle a car, and let’s see if you know where the hell you’re going.”
Len Kaye has taught a “Coaching the Mature Driver” course — geared for those 55 and older — at the Safety Council for Palm Beach for more than 10 years. Kaye said older drivers get a bad rap, pointing out that demographic group is more likely to drive the speed limit and , obey traffic signs and, most importantly, they don’t text and drive.
For seniors, “a lot of the problem is reaction time,” Kaye said. The average driver takes three-quarters of a second to move his foot from the gas to brake pedal. Older people, especially those with hip or knee replacements or other limitations, may need an extra quarter-second — “which could be a big deal when you’re driving 60 mph,” Kaye said.
Older drivers can also be stubborn, refusing to give up their keys long after it’s become clear that someone’s ability to negotiate the roadways has become impaired.
“They’ll fight against it because when you take away their driver’s license, you’re taking away their independence,” Kaye said.
Diane Greenfield of Greenacres said her elderly husband Marvin fought to keep driving despite vision issues that increased his motor vehicle insurance rates to exorbitant levels. Only after her husband was stricken by pancreatic cancer did he stop getting behind the wheel.
“When he had to give up his license, he felt like a prisoner, even though I could drive,” said Greenfield, whose husband died in 2010. “He wasn’t free and he felt lost.”
Florida has a system that allows anyone to report drivers with either physical or mental issues that could impact traffic safety. The reports are screened and a driver can be required to submit a medical report to investigators.
Last year, the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles revoked more than 10,500 licenses for medical reasons. That’s a sizable jump from the 7,716 licenses revoked in 2010 and an even larger increase from 2000 when the state pulled 3,559 licenses. Most drivers lost their driving privileges after not submitting medical records required by the state, records show.
State officials were unable to say how many of those revoked licenses were held by elderly drivers.
Elizabeth Dugan, a gerontology professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston who focuses on older driver safety, said research shows that requiring seniors to renew their license in person reduces crash fatalities for the oldest drivers.
Florida is one of 14 states that allows seniors to continue renewing their licenses either by mail or email, according to the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety.
“We think it functions as a performance test,” Dugan said of in-person renewals. “If the older driver can’t remember when they have to show up to renew, or if they can’t remember the route to go to the (DMV center), they’re not going to get the license.”
Dugan said attempts to regulate older drivers is “one of those complicated issues that upset people” and adds there are “no simple solutions.”
One thing is for certain: The number of senior drivers will continue to increase dramatically. By 2030, up to 90 percent of the 70 million Americans older than 65 are expected to have driver’s licenses, according to the American Automobile Association. That’s compared to 33 million drivers ages 65 and older in 2009.
A query on The Palm Beach Post’s Facebook page and other local news websites asking if elderly drivers should face stiffer obstacles to maintain their licenses drew hundreds of responses.
That’s not a surprise considering the number of octogenarian (and beyond) drivers in Palm Beach County. There are 75,168 county residents ages 80 and above with driver’s licenses, according to state figures. Miami-Dade County ranks a distant second with 59,828.
Neill Beren posted on the website Delray Raw that testing seniors’ vision every six years is a “joke” and would like to see those over 80 pass a vision exam once a year. “They are often oblivious to what’s happening around them,” he said.
Christi Parsons wrote on The Post’s Facebook page that “every time I see someone who can’t drive, it’s 9 out of 10 times an older person.”
Others didn’t appreciate younger drivers picking on their elders.
“Mandating a new driving test for those over 80 is certainly age discrimination,” wrote Jane Leeds of Delray Beach. “How about teaching new drivers safer ways to drive?”
Rosemary Nixon concurred on Delray Raw: “Let’s stop stereotyping older people, folks! Bad drivers in every age category.”