Last Thursday, April 7th, a group of small children and a few adults congregated around a corner at the intersection of King Charles Way and Grosvenor Lane in the bedroom community of North Bethesda, Maryland waiting for the school bus. Without warning, a tan-colored Honda missed a turn, jumped the curb, and plowed into a family of three who was waiting for the bus.
The car struck the seven-year-old son, his father, and an 18-month-old who was in a stroller. The Dad and the toddler were spared, but the seven-year-old suffered life-threatening injuries and later succumbed to them at the local hospital. The driver, an elderly man, "seemed confused", according to bystanders. Police continue to investigate the accident.
"As the country returns to some normalcy following the pandemic shutdown, Americans of all ages are back behind the wheel of their cars in record numbers," said certified elder law Attorney RJ Connelly III. "What we are forgetting is that driving is a skill, that if not practiced, can lead to a deterioration of that ability, possibly with deadly results, especially for seniors, a group that loses these skills even when they are driving on a regular basis."
"What we are forgetting is that driving is a skill, that if not practiced, can lead to a deterioration of that ability, possibly with deadly results, especially for seniors..." --- Attorney RJ Connelly III
However, not all seniors agree with Attorney Connelly's assessment. Bill C., a client of the firm, struck up a conversation with a staff member stating that his daughter wanted him to stop driving and demanded the keys after several fender benders in one year. "I told her she would get these keys over my dead body," Bill stated. "Anyway, they are always picking on people in our age group, but the truth is that teenagers have more accidents than we do! Go after them first!"
Looking At Statistics
Bill's statement regarding teens would appear to be true if just looking at the sheer numbers, but as the late Paul Harvey used to say, here is the rest of the story. Teens are indeed responsible for more accidents than seniors, but when you examine the miles driven by these two groups, mile per mile, seniors are involved in far more accidents than any other age group - including teens.
Another statistic we have heard cited is that deaths and injuries for elderly drivers have fallen significantly since the 1970s, but this is more of a function of better safety equipment on vehicles than an increase in the skills of the elderly who still use their cars. Still, even minor accidents can have a deadly outcome among seniors due to their susceptibility to injuries, especially chest trauma.
"Another statistic we have heard cited is that deaths and injuries for elderly drivers have fallen significantly since the 1970s, but this is more a function of better safety equipment on vehicles than an increase in the skills of the elderly..."
According to police records, fatal crashes begin to increase significantly for drivers 70-74 years of age and are highest among those over 85 years of age. Of this group, males by far, have higher rates of fatalities. Seniors are also responsible for an extremely high number of crashes into businesses, homes, and parking lots.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Association, numerous studies have also shown an increased risk of elderly drivers in fatal car crashes at intersections, as in the one this past Thursday in Maryland that killed a young child. The accidents that seniors are more prone to include left-turn crashes, accidents at stop signs, and yield signs, with accidents at traffic signals lagging far behind.
The Last Few Weeks
"Here are the concerns," said Attorney Connelly. "Just doing a cursory search online shows the numbers of accidents seniors are involved in. Although the safety equipment on cars has improved saving their lives, in many of these accidents they cause, they are still taking the lives of others."
Just as Attorney Connelly stated, a quick online search does produce some startling stories involving seniors and car accidents over the past week alone:
Reagan County, TX — Two women are dead following a crash in Reagan County. The crash occurred at the intersection of State Highway 137 and Ranch to Market 1357 around 7 p.m. on April 5. Doyle Ray Bridger-Pruneda, 70, of San Antonio was driving a car west on RM 1357 when he failed to stop at a stop sign. An International Truck with a trailer was traveling north on SH 137 at the same time, striking the car at the intersection of the two roads. Bridger-Pruneda was taken to Midland Memorial Hospital where he is reportedly stable. His passengers were Myrtie Lee Hoeft, 95, of Waco, and Sayble Jackson Bridger, 86, of San Antonio. Both women were pronounced dead at the scene.
Perry Hall, MD — Four people were injured after a car crashed into a business Tuesday afternoon, April 5, in Perry Hall, authorities said. The Baltimore County Fire Department said crews responded at 2 p.m. to the scene at Roula’s Salon and Spa on the 4100 block of Joppa Road. Three patients with minor injuries and one patient who was seriously injured were hospitalized. The vehicle that struck the patrons drove into the building and all the way through to the back of the business. A family member of the owner said she was one of the patients and is hospitalized with a concussion. An elderly man was behind the wheel, according to witnesses. Those nearby jumped in to help.
East Hollywood, CA - On April 6, an 84-year-old driver crashed a vehicle into Bar Covell in East Hollywood, injuring two pedestrians who were transported to the hospital along with the driver. The driver is reported to be in stable condition, while the two 27-year-old victims are stable but experienced severe injuries from the crash. ABC-7 reports the driver lost control of the vehicle and struck the front of the popular wine bar and restaurant, crashing five to ten feet into the restaurant at noon yesterday.
Miami Beach, FL – The woman who was behind the wheel of an older model Bentley when she lost control of the car and crashed into a South Beach restaurant is not facing charges at this point. Police said the woman, who was in her mid-seventies, was trying to parallel park near "Call Me Gaby" at 22 Washington Ave., around 6:30 p.m. April 7th when the car jumped the curb. One witness told Local 10 News that the car “didn’t stop, it kept going.” One person at the site on Friday chose not to go on camera but said the man who died, and his friends were regulars at Call Me Gaby.
Lebanon, IN — At least three people were hurt after a woman drove into a gas station in Lebanon on April 6th. According to police, around 8:22 a.m., an “elderly” driver was headed north on S. Lebanon in an SUV when she somehow struck another vehicle at the pump at a Speedway gas station and then continued into the store. Police say she was pinned in the vehicle and had to be removed by first responders. The woman was taken to the hospital with unknown injuries.
Chico, CA - An elderly woman drove through a wall of the Dollar Tree on Notre Dame Boulevard in Chico on April 4th, according to the Chico Police Department. Police said the elderly woman had a medical issue that caused her to drive through the wall. There were no injuries to the driver or anyone in the store. The vehicle has been removed from the store.
New York City, NY - An elderly woman lost control of her vehicle and drove into a Trader Joe’s in Manhattan on the afternoon of April 7th — striking a pedestrian in the process, police said. The 75-year-old driver hit the Upper West Side grocery store at 670 Columbus Avenue around 1 p.m., according to a police spokesman. The driver also struck a 69-year-old woman who was on the sidewalk, cops said. The victim was taken to St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital in stable condition for treatment of her injuries.
The above is just a limited sample of scores of such accidents that involve seniors and property damage that have occurred over just the past few months, and when it comes to pedestrians, being alert to their presence is also an expectation of driving a vehicle. Given that, pedestrian-involved accidents also disproportionately involve seniors. Statistics find that seniors 85 years and above had the highest rate of pedestrian-involved deaths of all age groups (4.4 per 100,000). Many involve a lack of judgment, slow or impaired walking, and the inability to avoid danger by moving quickly. Here are a few examples of this in the last two months alone here in New England.
February 18, 2022 - A woman is dead after she was allegedly struck by a vehicle Thursday evening in Hyde Park, MA. Police were called to the area near Vallaro Road around 7:08 p.m. There, they found an elderly woman; she was pronounced dead on scene, according to police. The victim has not been publicly identified. The investigation is continuing, authorities said. (Boston.com)
March 9, 2022 - An 86-year-old woman was killed Monday afternoon after she was struck by a car while walking on a sidewalk in a Massachusetts city, according to authorities. She was walking on Hunting Street in the area of Salem Street in Malden, MA shortly before 1:40 p.m. when the driver of a Toyota RAV4, a man in his 20s, hit her with the car, according to a statement from Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan’s office.
March 19, 2022 - Holyoke, MA Police answered to a report of an elderly woman struck by a motor vehicle at the intersection of Beech and West Franklin Street on Tuesday. The woman, who was found in the road, was unresponsive at the time officers were able to apply first aid. EMS services were called as the scene was stabilized. The Massachusetts State Police Collision Analysis and Reconstruction Section were also called to the scene.
"...pedestrian-involved accidents also disproportionately involve seniors. Statistics find that seniors 85 years and above had the highest rate of pedestrian involved deaths of all age groups."
A Hard Discussion to Have
Why are they involved in so many of these types of accidents? The answer lies in the results of aging. Let's check them out:
Fifty percent of older adults and 80 percent of those in their seventies suffer from maladies such as arthritis, causing joints to become inflamed resulting in limitations in turning, flexing, and twisting, necessary skills when it comes to navigating the roadway.
As we age, our muscles become weaker and our range of motion becomes more limited affecting the ability to grasp the steering wheel, use the brake and accelerator properly, and reach or open windows while maintaining focus on the road.
Over 75 percent of drivers over sixty-five reports using one or more medications but astonishingly, less than one-third of these drivers report that they were aware of the side effects of the drugs they were using.
And as we cited earlier, mile for mile, fatal crash rates increase beginning at age 75 and then rise dramatically after the age of eighty. In fact, fatalities among this group are seventeen times higher than those aged 25 – 65. Much of this can be attributed to the fragility of their bodies.
"Given what we know about aging, and the numbers involving seniors in traffic accidents and fatalities, wouldn't it make sense that family members would want to confront their loved ones about these numbers and why they have concerns for them," said Attorney Connelly. "Unfortunately, it's not as easy as it sounds and, in many situations, this request can develop quite a schism within a family."
"...wouldn't it make sense that family members would want to confront senior loved ones about these numbers [but] it's not as easy as it sounds...this request can develop quite a schism within a family." ---Attorney RJ Connelly III
And the numbers bear this out. In a recent study reported by the American Association of Retired People (AARP), they found that adult children under the age of sixty-five were unwilling to address the subject with their parents even though they had concerns. Astonishingly, 40 percent of this group felt more comfortable discussing funeral arrangements with their parents than broaching the subject of taking the car keys away.
In a national telephone survey about this subject, 29 percent felt a doctor should be the one to make the decision that a parent should not be driving, 25 percent felt it was a family matter and 23 percent felt that the government should be involved in this decision. Only 16 percent thought that seniors should be allowed to make this decision.
And what about the seniors themselves? In a similar survey, a third felt that they would prefer it if their family was involved in this matter while 26 percent felt that they should be the ones making this decision. About 20 percent felt that a doctor would be the one to address this and only 10 percent wanted the government involved.
Signs That a Discussion is Needed
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration cites several actions that may indicate that it is time to re-evaluate the driving privilege for a senior:
Drifts into other lanes, straddle lanes, or make sudden lane changes.
Ignore or miss stop signs and traffic signals.
Gets easily confused in traffic.
Brakes or stops abruptly without cause.
Accelerates suddenly without reason.
Coasts to a near stop amid moving traffic.
Presses simultaneously on the brake and accelerator while driving.
Has difficulty seeing pedestrians, objects, and other vehicles.
Is increasingly nervous when driving.
Drives at significantly slower than the posted speed.
Backs up after missing an exit or road.
Difficulty reacting quickly as they process multiple images or sounds.
Problems with neck flexibility.
Gets lost or disoriented easily, even in familiar places.
Fails to use the turn signal or keeps the signal on without changing lanes.
Increased "close calls" and "near misses".
Has been issued two or more traffic tickets or warnings in the past two years.
Dents and scrapes on the car or fences, mailboxes, garage doors, and curbs.
What if their driving skills have regressed so much that even a refresher course may not be able to help? It then becomes time to discuss giving up the car with your loved one. This task can be extremely difficult so it’s understandable why family members feel more comfortable discussing funeral plans than taking the keys.
How to Focus and Be Prepared
"As you prepare for the discussion, remember this, these are our seniors, our parents, our grandparents. Many of them were directly involved in teaching us to drive and even buying us our first car," said Attorney Connelly. "Don't treat them like teenagers and threaten to take their keys as punishment."
"This discussion must be done with compassion and respect. For most, their car, and their ability to travel is the only semblance of independence and normalcy that they can hold onto to. Remember what it felt like under the restrictions of the pandemic?" --- Attorney RJ Connelly III
"This discussion must be done with compassion and respect," stated Attorney Connelly. "Imagine a senior, who may already be struggling with the loss of memory, physical capabilities, and eyesight. They may be selling their home and moving into assisted living. Friends and spouses are dying. For most, their car, and their ability to travel is the only semblance of independence and normalcy that they can hold onto. Remember what it felt like under the restrictions of the pandemic? Now someone tells them that this part of their lives will be taken away, too? How would you feel?"
If this discussion becomes necessary with a loved one, we suggest having a plan in place before sitting down with them. Here are some ways to approach this conversation.
Come prepared with the evidence. Now, this is not a court but having a case prepared to show evidence to the senior is the best way to go. Have a list of traffic tickets, accidents, damage to the vehicle, and even neighbors who may have witnessed unsafe driving. Be specific. Think of it this way, would you rather be the one to tell your loved one it’s time to stop, or should it be a judge in a court in front of the public and even make headlines in the newspaper?
If you can’t bring yourself to do this, talk to a professional. Have a doctor write a prescription stating no driving, a local clergy could discuss this if you find it too difficult.
Make a list of the cost savings that would result in giving up the keys and how much that would amount to. No gas, no oil changes, no insurance, etc. If they enjoy traveling, show them how this money could go towards a cruise or resort stay.
Have a list of alternative transportation arrangements in place, like Uber or Lyft, or a list of suggestions on how to maintain independence.
Explore home health care agencies, grocery delivery services, and meal delivery services that can help seniors stay independent.
The things we mentioned above are concrete steps, but what about the emotional content of the conversation? Try to take this approach:
Don’t play hardball and make accusations. Taking away the keys for some could be the "final straw" for the senior and send them into a bout of depression. Approach this conversation with empathy. Put yourself in their place and think about how you would feel.
Make sure other family members are involved in the conversation so the senior can see it is a family decision.
Be honest and treat the senior like an adult and not a child. Remember, sitting with you is the person that stood by your side decades earlier when you first picked up the keys, or when you had relationship problems or were sick. Make sure the conversation is adult to adult, no accusations, no finger-pointing, just talk about the truth and the dangers. Honesty, “We don’t want you to get hurt or to hurt others” is the best way to share your concerns.
Explain the alternatives and even involvement in a ride-sharing program that could help them meet others in a similar predicament. Getting old is not a sin, we will all be there and with age come limitations. It’s a reality.
You could withdraw the car slowly. For instance, no driving after dark, or in the rain. Stay off highways and have no children or grandchildren in the car.
If you have tried every way to convince them that driving is no longer an option and yet they continue to try and drive, you may want to disable the car, especially if it is someone with dementia. Removing the battery cable or other electrical components gets the job done.
There could also be other issues besides age that could also be a reason to stop driving. Vision issues, side effects of medications (especially pain medications and benzodiazepines), heart problems such as tachycardia, pain, and even addiction could be a reason to take away the keys.
A Sense of Relief
Finally, we have spoken with many family members who had to go through this process with a loved one. After the keys were taken away, a sense of comfort was present not only for the family members but also for the seniors themselves. In fact, one family told us their mother said some months later, “I don’t know why I don’t do this earlier; I actually feel relieved."