In 1918, Thelma Wilson got behind the wheel of a car for the very first time and drove away.
She was 91 years old before she finally stopped.
“She was so small, she had to sit on three cushions, and then all you saw was the top of her white-haired head,” said Kaye Wilson, Thelma Wilson’s daughter. “I took the keys away from her.”
Although elderly people sometimes have difficulty driving, they are not required to pass any extra testing in Idaho to keep their driver’s licenses.
Some police say recent incidents, such as one in which an elderly driver ran into a pedestrian, show the requirements need to be changed.
“I’ve seen throughout my experience too many elderly drivers who didn’t have the capacity to avoid accidents,” said Sandpoint police Capt. Ralph Mavity.
But giving up driving is difficult for many elderly people and their families.
“That was the last part of her independence taken away from her,” Kaye Wilson, who works for the Area Agency on Aging, said of her mother.
Idaho statistics show that elderly drivers are in fewer accidents than young drivers are. But other studies indicate elderly drivers are more likely to be involved in a crash than most middle-aged drivers are.
“Reaction times are slowed; vision isn’t as good as it used to be. I think some elderly drivers are more easily confused,” said Kootenai County sheriff’s Capt. Ben Wolfinger.
Thelma Wilson says she was in her 80s when she began realizing traffic moved too fast for her.
“My goodness, just to step into a car and take off was wonderful,” Thelma Wilson, now 94, said. “But there’s just too many now.”
Kaye Wilson worried about her mother. “I was concerned that with the problems she had, she could black out and hurt herself or somebody else.”
Police and close family members can request a license re-evaluation for a driver they have doubts about.
The Idaho Transportation Department then gives the driver 30 days to have a medical examination and take an eye exam and a driving test, said Jane Caviness, drivers services manager.
Drivers must pass all three or lose their license.
Caviness’ department revokes about 65 licenses per month.
More than half belong to elderly people, she said.
Mavity said he would like to see more precautions to prevent elderly drivers from hurting themselves and others.
Two weeks ago, a Sandpoint officer asked that Samuel Wagner be reevaluated after the 82-year-old allegedly had driven on sidewalks and swerved too close to other cars, said Cpl. Dave Biggerstaff.
Since Wagner had 30 days to be tested, officers could do little more than send him on his way.
Last week, he ran into a pedestrian in a crosswalk.
Biggerstaff says officers should be allowed to take away driver’s licenses on the spot.
On Tuesday, Sandpoint police watched an 86-year-old pull into an intersection without looking both ways. When the officer flipped on his car’s flashing lights, the man drove up onto a jogging path before stopping.
The driver had just passed a reevaluation test.
Mavity says elderly drivers should have to take a stringent driving test every year - one that tests their ability to avoid accidents.
Florida tried to pass a similar law this year. It would have required people 70 years and older to be tested every two years.
“It went over with our legislators like a lead balloon,” said staffer John Johnston.
A report from the Florida Department of Highway Safety showed that elderly drivers were involved in more accidents per miles driven than middle-aged drivers are.
Regardless, the American Association of Retired People does not support blanket testing for older drivers.
“A lot of people get so scared they won’t pass that they won’t go take the test even though they would have been safe drivers,” said Elizabeth Clemmer.
And Kaye Wilson points out that elderly folks, like younger people, depend on their cars to get food, go to the doctor and attend church.
Thelma Wilson says she doesn’t mind the idea of elderly drivers being tested more often.
But she points out that in 74 years of driving, she never was ticketed. And she was in only one car crash - when two teenage boys who were driving too fast ran into her.
“That’s quite a record,” she said. “I’m a little proud of it.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Graphics: Older drivers and accidents
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