- The Washington Times - Monday, November 6, 2000

Driving to meet his two daughters at a restaurant a few blocks from his home in east-central Missouri last summer, 86-year-old William Ahal realized he was horribly lost and eventually stopped to ask for directions at a convenience store.

He was in Hales Corners, Wis., about 365 miles from his starting point.

Linda Crosby-Pire, a shopper who happens to work at a retirement home, noticed that the elderly driver had narrowly missed hitting two cars as he entered the store's parking lot. Familiar with symptoms of Alzheimer's disease, she contacted police.

Mr. Ahal, who had shown signs of cognitive deterioration for months but refused to give up driving, spent the night at a local nursing home. His son arrived the next morning to reunite him with his family in Missouri.

Mr. Ahal's situation offers a glimpse into a new world of driving-related problems soon to confront a ballooning segment of America's population: elderly motorists.

With the first crop of baby boomers fast approaching retirement, transportation planners and health care professionals are gearing up to deal with as many as 54 million drivers who will be 65 and older within 20 years.

Planners are looking at various aspects of the situation, from the design of highways, which were engineered in the 1950s using studies based on the driving skills of college students, to dealing with psychological problems that are bound to erupt when older drivers wrestle with giving up their car keys.

Older Americans, especially those living in rural areas without mass-transit systems, depend on automobiles for links to the rest of society.

"If older people can't get out of their homes for social interaction, they become isolated, they develop more illnesses and they can even die prematurely," said Joan Fernan, who organized a symposium on the issue for the Wisconsin Department of Transportation during the summer. "They just kind of give up."

Many aging drivers acknowledge their deficiencies and adjust their driving habits. They often use cars only to go to church or to attend noon meals at nearby senior citizen centers. Some even give up driving completely.

Fred Fisher of Wautoma, Wis., an 84-year-old retired real estate salesman, had a mild stroke in March and then decided to turn his car over to his son. Driving seemed too risky, Mr. Fisher said.

"I could drive if I want to. But I don't want to," said Mr. Fisher, a lean, healthy looking man with a thick shock of white hair. "I made up my mind, and I'm going to stick to it. I don't want to hurt myself, and I don't want to hurt an innocent family driving someplace."

Most states have no special licensing requirements for older motorists. Illinois and New Hampshire are the only states that require drivers 75 and older to take road tests. A few states, such as California and Louisiana, have laws denying license renewals by mail to drivers 70 and older.

The AARP and other advocacy groups for the elderly oppose laws that discriminate against senior drivers.

"There are people 92 years old who have been driving all of their lives, and they've never had a crash," said James Chase, state coordinator of 55 Alive, an AARP-sponsored course that re-teaches driving skills to older motorists. "And there are people in the 40s who are terrible drivers and shouldn't be driving. People simply age differently. Age shouldn't be the only factor considered for licensing."

However, most skills needed for driving diminish with age, said William Rock of Madison, Wis., a physician and expert on older drivers.

"Vision, especially night vision, is the first thing to go," Dr. Rock said.

Almost one-third of people older than 65 experience significant hearing loss, and that climbs to about 75 percent of people 75 and older, he said. Plus, arthritis and osteoporosis contribute to how well drivers are able to control vehicles. Mental sharpness can remain the same in older people, but it takes longer to process information, he said.

"Processing information to perform multiple tasks becomes more difficult," he said. "An older driver looks at the dashboard, looks at the line of traffic and maybe gets distracted talking to a passenger. The processing time is slower. Maybe just a fraction of a second but it's enough to make a difference when you're driving 65 mph."

• Distributed by Scripps Howard

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