CHICAGO — On one side of the delicate topic of elderly driver competence is Marvin Kruse, 89, who quit after his wife of 51 years was killed nearly 10 years ago when their car was struck as he made a left turn in North Riverside.
On the other side of the debate is Arthur Seagren, 90, who drives his 1995 Buick LeSabre every day — to the West Suburban Senior Center in Bellwood, to grocery stores, to church.
Kruse said older drivers can’t detect their eroding skills and should relinquish the car keys when they hit 80. Seagren maintains that older drivers are more experienced and careful and that driving privileges for the elderly should be based on testing and on an individual’s driving history.
The truth is that they both may be right.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reports that in the last decade elderly drivers reduced their involvement in fatal and nonfatal crashes by a greater rate than middle-age drivers. But older drivers are still more likely to die in police-reported fatal crashes, and insurance collision claims suggest that drivers over the age of 70 are lagging behind overall driver safety gains, the institute reports.
Drivers of all ages recorded an 11 percent drop in fatal crashes between 1997 and 2008, according to a report by Insurance Institute researchers Ivan Cheung and Anne McCartt. But each of three groups of older drivers — ranging from 70 to 80 and older — had greater reductions than drivers in the 35-to-54-year-old age group, the research showed.
The most dramatic decline in the fatal crash rate, the report stated last year, was the rapid and consistent decline for the oldest drivers, those 80 and older. Fatal crashes in that group, the report said, fell by almost half from about 38 fatal crashes per 100,000 drivers in 1997 to about 20 crashes in 2008.
Precisely why fewer older drivers are dying, getting injured or are otherwise involved in car crashes remains a mystery, McCartt said during a recent discussion of the report’s conclusions.
“It’s very hard to pin down,” she said. This generation of older folks may be in better physical condition than previous generations and benefit from technological advances in auto safety and emergency medical care, McCartt said.
They’re more affluent, may drive on less-risky roads and may be more likely to “self-restrict” their driving as they age, she added.
“My personal theory,” she said, “is that being old just isn’t what it used to be, and that includes being in better health. But you have to be careful not to overgeneralize. The bottom line is we’re not sure why.”
The drop in elderly fatalities is particularly significant, considering that today’s drivers 70 and older keep their licenses longer, drive more miles and are a larger percentage of the population than that age group in past years, experts say. The Insurance Institute states that 22 million licensed drivers age 70 and older were on the roads in 2008, compared with slightly less than 18 m illion in 1997.
The encouraging picture gets a little murkier when researchers examined insurance collision claims, considered a more comprehensive barometer than police-reported fatal and nonfatal crashes.
Middle-age drivers experienced a 9 percent decline in insurance collision claims per 1,000 insured vehicles from 1997-2006, the Insurance Institute reports. The drop for drivers 70 and older during that time was 5-7 percent, the Institute reported in 2009, the most recent data available.
In addition, the rate of all crashes per mile sharply increases after age 80, the institute reported.
All those statistics indicate the issue of elderly driver competence is “more nuanced,” said McCartt, senior vice president for research at the institute in Arlington, Va. “I think we all have to acknowledge that as we get older, there are certain impairments that increase, and I don’t think we should minimize that. But I think it is very individualized.”
That individualization emerged on a drizzly Wednesday morning at the Illinois Secretary of State driver’s license facility in Chicago’s Jefferson Park neighborhood. Esther Zevin, 83 and Harriet Tiahnybik, who identified herself as “an octogenarian,” took their driving tests.
Zevin passed. Tiahnybik did not.
“I don’t think the fact that you’re 85 years old means that you have impairments that should keep you from driving,” said Zevin, of Chicago. “Some 25-year-olds shouldn’t be driving.”
Like other older drivers, Zevin said she is a more cautious but still confident motorist. She won’t drive in snow, heavy rain or icy conditions, she said.
“We’re more careful because we say to ourselves, ‘OK, I’m 83. I better be more careful,’ “ Zevin said. “The age scares us.”
Tiahnybik, of Lincolnwood, failed after her tester said she turned left too close in front of an oncoming SUV — a contention Tiahnybik disputed. Undaunted, she said she was planning on returning to take her test as soon as the law allows, in 24 hours.
“That was the first time I haven’t passed,” Tiahnybik said. An active woman who golfs three or four times a week, works out with a personal trainer and volunteers at a Veterans Administration hospital, Tiahnybik said she “will take my driver’s license away from myself if I feel I have any issues.”
Nationally, 28 states and the District of Columbia impose additional requirements on older drivers, IIHS reports. Those include shorter periods between renewals, requiring older drivers to renew in person and additional tests not given to younger drivers.
Illinois has among the most restrictive license renewal systems for older drivers. It is the only state that requires drivers 75 and older, like Kruse, Seagren, Zevin and Tiahnybik, to take road tests when they seek to renew their licenses.
The state also requires drivers ages 81-86 to renew their licenses every two years, compared with every four years for younger drivers. Drivers 87 and older must renew their licenses every year.
“I’m surprised that some states have gone in the opposite direction,” Illinois Secretary of State spokesman Dave Druker said, adding that the office provides refresher courses and a speakers bureau geared primarily to senior drivers. “It seems to me you’ve got to have some system in place” to accommodate seniors, he said.
Kruse isn’t sure any accommodations would work.
“I drive with a lot of older people,” he said “and I can see some of them should give up.”
About his own heartbreaking loss of his wife Margaret — she was sitting next to him in the front seat when their car was hit — Kruse said it helps to discuss what happened.
“You never get over it, but you get around it,” he said. “I just have to accept it. I can’t undo it.”
Seagren, who said he hopes to drive for “at least another five years, if I’m here five years from now,” understands those accommodations. But like other elderly drivers, he wants to be treated fairly, on an individual basis.
“I drive like I’m 50 years old,” he said. “I have no problems. I leave plenty of space. The biggest thing I see about driving a car is idiots who have to get somewhere faster than you do. Eighty-five percent or more people drive pretty well. But there’s always some fool who’s got to cut in and out.”
The next morning she golfed 18 holes then returned to the Jefferson Park driver’s license facility to take the test. She passed.
“What a difference a day makes,” Tiahnybik said.