Dramatic car crashes involving older drivers never fail to make headlines.
Just this year, there was the elderly driver who in June headed north in the southbound lane of Interstate 295 in Portland during rush hour. A state trooper used his cruiser to stop the vehicle and prevent it from striking oncoming motorists.
There was an older woman who, in February, got turned around when she left the Hampden rest area on I-95 and headed north in the southbound lane, forcing another driver to crash into a barrier to avoid a head-on collision.
In January, an elderly Gorham man was killed after he ended up driving north in the interstate’s southbound lane in Freeport for about two miles. A Bangor woman he hit was badly injured.
Senior drivers aren’t responsible for most wrong-way crashes in Maine — drunk drivers are — but research shows they’re involved in a disproportionately high number of traffic deaths.
Maine ranks fourth in the nation for its percentage of fatal crashes involving drivers 65 or older and ninth in the number of licensed drivers in that age bracket, according to a report released in February by The Road Information Program, a nonprofit national transportation safety organization. According to data from the Bureau of Motor Vehicles’ website, about 189,000 of Maine’s 1 million drivers in 2011 were 65 or older.
Seniors are involved in fewer traffic crashes than younger drivers and tend to travel fewer miles. But today’s growing population of seniors can expect to live seven to 10 years beyond their ability to drive competently, making older driver safety a high priority for health and government officials.
Secretary of State Charlie Summers has directed a Bureau of Motor Vehicles Medical Advisory Board to look into how medications and interactions between medical conditions might affect driving ability.
Dr. Dan Onion, a member of the advisory board and founder of the Maine Older Driver Task Force, said board members are working to help doctors and clinicians to better understand how to help patients and families facing hard decisions about senior driving.
“People who are physically or visually impaired usually know about it and can make good decisions about driving at night, not driving on the interstate, those sorts of things,” he said. “The people who don’t have insight are really a problem.”
In Maine, people ages 65 and older must renew their licenses every four years, as opposed to every six years for younger drivers. Those older than 62 are required to pass a vision test.
The Bureau of Motor Vehicles can pull or restrict a person’s license in response to concerns from doctors or a person’s family members, but those referrals are voluntary.
Basing driving restrictions on age fails to take into account each individual driver’s capabilities, Onion said. A 50-year-old driver may not be safe on the road while some 85-year-olds can get behind the wheel with no problems.
“Age-based stuff politically doesn’t work and medically doesn’t work,” he said.
There are more sensitive ways to respond to an aging driver than threatening to take away the keys, he said.
“Most people who become impaired are very able to judge for themselves what they ought to be doing and just need a little help,” Onion said.
The BMV’s advisory group is urging statewide use of a self driving test offered by AAA, he said.
Whether an elderly driver gets behind the wheel can depend on a number of factors, Onion said.
“If they don’t have family and they don’t have transportation except for their car and they live out in the boondocks where there isn’t public transportation, which is most of Maine, then there’s a lot of disincentive to face reality,” he said.
Onion would know. He treats primarily older patients, and he’s 70 years old himself.
“My name is Dan and I am a senior driver,” he said.